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Nan Goldin and P.A.I.N. march to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on February 9, during one of their many protests against the Sackler family. Photo: Lauren Cavalli.

Sacklers Will Pay $3 Billion to Settle Lawsuits over US Opioid Epidemic

Members of the Sackler family associated with Purdue Pharma, the Stamford, Connecticut–based pharmaceutical company that manufactures OxyContin, will hand over $3 billion in cash over the next seven years to the thousands of plaintiffs nationwide who are suing the family over its role in igniting the opioid epidemic in the United States, Jan Hoffman of the New York Times reports. The tentative agreement will settle nearly all of the more than 2,300 lawsuits filed against Purdue, but it is uncertain how the money would be distributed.

Hoffman learned from sources involved with the ongoing negotiations that the terms of the settlement, which is supposedly valued at $10 billion to $12 billion, will also include the dissolution of Purdue. In its stead, a new organization will be established, which will continue selling OxyContin. Proceeds from the sale of the opioid will be used to pay the county, city, and state governments, as well as the tribal nations with whom Purdue is locked in a legal battle. The new entity will also donate “rescue” drugs for overdose reversal and other addiction treatments. While Purdue is expected to file for bankruptcy, the pharmaceutical giant is not required to admit any wrongdoing.

“Purdue Pharma believes a settlement that benefits the American public now is a far better path than years of wasteful litigation and appeals,” Josephine Martin, Purdue’s head of corporate affairs and communications, wrote in a statement sent to NPR.

Purdue would have been due in federal court in Cleveland in less than six weeks to face its first trial had it failed to settle. While the deal has yet to be finalized, a group of five lawyers negotiating the settlement are encouraging plaintiffs to accept. For some, the terms of the agreement are too lenient. “This is a very good deal for the Sacklers, equivalent to only two years of returns on their giant fortune, maybe less after accounting for tax,” Christopher Glazek wrote on Twitter. According to Forbes, the Sacklers are one of the richest families in America, with an estimated net worth of $13 billion.

Those in opposition to the deal want the Sacklers to cough up more cash. One point of contention is whether the family has been purposefully taking billions of dollars from the company since the notorious settlement it made in 2007, when three executives at Purdue pleaded guilty to criminal charges of misleading medical professionals and patients about the risks of taking the drug. (A federal court ordered Purdue to pay a fine of $635 million to resolve the “misbranding” issue.) In July, the state of Arizona filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court claiming that the family had transferred around $4 billion from Purdue between the years of 2008 and 2016 and was “keenly aware that Purdue was facing massive financial liabilities and that these transfers could prevent from satisfying eventual judgements.” The Sacklers have denied these allegations, claiming that they are “inconsistent with the factual record.” A spokesperson for the family told the New York Times that they “will vigorously defend against them.”

Among those who haven’t agreed to the deal are the attorneys general in the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York. “Connecticut has not agreed to any settlement,” William Tong, the state’s attorney general, said in a statement. “Our position remains firm and unchanged and nothing for us has changed today.” New York attorney general Letitia James said: “A deal that doesn’t account for the depth of pain and destruction caused by Purdue and the Sacklers is an insult, plain and simple. As attorney general, I will continue to seek justice for victims and fight to hold bad actors accountable, no matter how powerful they may be.”

At the forefront of the years-long effort to hold the Sacklers accountable are photographer Nan Goldin and her activist group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now). Their systematic approach to organizing protests at prominent cultural institutions and universities across the globe has spurred a greater movement against toxic philanthropy that has been debated intensely in artistic communities and philanthropic circles. Since she revealed her own struggles with addiction in the January 2018 issue of this magazine, Goldin has partnered with other activists, survivors, families of overdose victims, and grassroots organizations to pressure municipal governments to take action.

In response to the conditions of the settlement, Goldin and P.A.I.N. sent Artforum the following statement:

This settlement is a hoax. The Sacklers have fraudulently transferred $4 billion from their company Purdue Pharma since 2007 and funneled these funds into offshore accounts to protect it from the litigation they knew was coming. In its stead, they shamelessly offer billions in Oxycontin, their drug that ignited this crisis, to pay off their debt. 

We stand by the Attorneys General who are continuing to fight to claw back the personal wealth of this family. One family has profited off the bodies of 400,000 Americans and destroyed families and communities across the country––they deserve justice. This settlement doesn’t demand that they admit culpability and we will not settle until the Sacklers are held accountable.

We call on the American public to contact their Attorneys General and demand they stand with William Tong, Maura Healey, and Letitia James by clawing back the Sackler’s personal wealth.

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