U.S. Politics and the Economy

Filthy Rich

Some drug dealers go to prison. Some get rich. Others get filthy rich.

By Phillip Smith

Say hello to the Sacklers, the newest members of Forbes’ 2015 List of Richest U.S. Families, who collected a fortune from a national opioid addiction epidemic. With a worth of $14 billion, they’re the 16th richest family in the country. Although they’re richer than the Mellons, the Busches, or the Rockefellers, you’ve probably never heard of them.

But you’ve almost certainly heard about the product that put them in the one percent of the one percent. The Sacklers own 100 percent of Purdue Pharma, the Stamford, Connecticut-based company that makes Oxycontin, the opiate analgesic that helped spark a new generation of pain pill and heroin addicts.

Oxycontin has been the most popular and controversial opioid of this century, and the time-release pain reliever, originally billed as addiction-proof, has generated the vast majority of Purdue Pharma’s $35 billion in sales since it was first introduced in 1995. Purdue is currently generating about $3 billion a year in revenues, again most of it from Oxycontin.

Sales of oxycodone jumped from fewer than ten million prescriptions a year in 1991 to more than 53 million prescriptions in 2012, largely impelled by the introduction of Oxycontin and Purdue Pharma’s aggressive marketing campaign for the drug. And while it’s difficult to isolate Oxycontin from other opiate analgesics, it has been a big driver in the four-fold increase in prescription opiate sales between 1999 and 2010. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, of the nearly 44,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2013, more than half were from prescribed drugs, and of those deaths, 72 percent were from opiate overdoses. The opiate overdose death rate has increased more than three-fold in the same period, the CDC reported. 

The company that would become Purdue Pharma was founded by brothers Arthur, Mortimer, and Raymond Sackler, all practicing psychiatrists, in 1952. The firm was a middling success, initially selling unglamorous products like laxatives and earwax, but its fortunes changed after it began experimenting with generic oxycodone, which was invented in Germany during World War I, and eventually created a formulation with a time-release mechanism, which was designed to reduce addictiveness by spreading the drug’s effect over a 12-hour period.

That move enabled Purdue to market Oxycontin beyond cancer patients who were the traditional market for powerful painkillers, and it did so with gusto. Thanks to Purdue’s aggressive marketing campaign, and especially to the claim the Oxycontin was not addictive; primary care physicians soon began prescribing it for a wide array of painful symptoms. By 2002, Oxycontin was bringing in $1.5 billion a year.

Of course, people interested in getting high off opiates quickly figured out that they could just crush the pill to overcome it’s time-release mechanism, snort the powder, and get as high—or higher—than they could with heroin. Overdoses, accidental deaths, and addiction followed.

Purdue has been punished for its misbehavior—it was forced to pay $635 million in fines after pleading guilty to false marketing charges brought by the Justice Department, and it is facing a possible $1 billion pay-out in a false marketing suit brought by the state of Kentucky, one of the hardest hit by “hillbilly heroin,” as the pills were nicknamed.

But even numbers like those are chump change when you’re sitting on a $14 billion fortune.

At a time when low-level street dealers get sent to prison for decades when one of their customers overdoses and dies on their product, the Sacklers, whose product has killed thousands and addicted tens—or hundreds-of-thousands more, get to join the list of the country’s wealthiest families.

Phillip Smith is editor of the AlterNet Drug Reporter and author of the Drug War Chronicle.

AlterNet, July 16, 2015