Sackler family members to testify before Congress over opioids

Two members of the Sackler family which owns OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma have agreed to testify this week before a congressional committee investigating the US opioid epidemic.

In this 2018 file photo, Christine Gagnon, of Southington, Connecticut holds a sign during a protest with others who have lost loved ones to OxyContin and opioid overdoses, outside the Purdue Pharma headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut [File: Jessica Hill/AP]

Two members of the Sackler family who own OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma agreed to appear this week before a congressional committee investigating the family and the company’s role in the national opioid addiction and overdose epidemic.

Thursday’s hearing before the House Oversight Committee will be the first time in years that any member of the wealthy family would take questions in public from an official body, and could be a watershed moment in the long legal and political battles over the opioid crisis, which has been linked to 470,000 deaths in the United States since 2000.

The committee scheduled and then cancelled a hearing earlier this month after family members would not commit to appearing. But last week, Representative Carolyn Maloney, the New York Democrat who chairs the committee, announced it was on again and wrote a scathing letter to their lawyers.

“Your clients have not agreed to testify at a hearing before the Committee at any time – ever. As a result, it appears that your clients are not engaging in this process in good faith,” Maloney wrote, threatening to issue subpoenas that would force them to appear.

Sales of OxyContin were fueled by a years-long campaign by Purdue Pharma to persuade doctors that unlike other opioids, it had a low incidence of addiction – but that message was not true [File: Jeff Chiu/AP]

Ultimately, family members worked out a deal. David Sackler, who served on the Purdue board from 2012 until 2018, and Kathe Sackler, who served on it from 1990 until 2018, when family members exited the board, are scheduled to appear at the hearing, which will be conducted by video conference because of coronavirus pandemic precautions. Company CEO Craig Landau has also agreed to participate.

In a statement, Purdue said it is committed to addressing the opioid crisis through its proposed settlement in bankruptcy court, which would provide billions of dollars to communities, addiction treatment, overdose reversal medications and other measures. A representative for Kathe Sackler declined to comment. One for David Sackler did not return a message.

Members of the family have been cast by activists and officials as prime villains in the country’s opioid crisis who need to be held accountable for seeking profits from drugs that were leading to addictions and overdoses.

Purdue, based in Stamford, Connecticut, is owned by the descendants of Raymond and Mortimer Sackler. They bought the company in the 1950s along with a third brother, Arthur, who pioneered pharmaceutical advertising and became wealthy partly by promoting Valium, another addictive drug.

By the time OxyContin was launched in the 1990s, Arthur Sackler’s family had sold out their share in Purdue. His descendants emphasise that they have not profited from OxyContin.

Purdue started selling OxyContin, a time-release version of oxycodone, in 1996, and it became a pharmaceutical blockbuster used to treat a variety of types of pain. Its sales were fuelled by a years-long campaign to persuade doctors that unlike other opioids, it had a low incidence of addiction.

But that message, pushed by doctors who were paid speaking fees, and pain patient advocacy groups funded by Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies, was not true.

Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family have been under scrutiny for decades over OxyContin [File: Charles Krupa/AP]

The company and the family have been under scrutiny for decades. The company and three of its executives pleaded guilty in 2007 to misleading the public about OxyContin’s risk of addiction and paid $635m in fines.

Sales continued after that. So did overdoses, though the majority of opioid deaths since then have been linked to heroin and illicit fentanyl rather than prescription opioids.

The industry has faced a legal reckoning in recent years. Purdue and a host of drugmakers, distributors and pharmacy chains have been sued by nearly 3,000 state and local governments.

Members of the Sackler family are named as defendants in many of them. According to a court filing last year, they made between $12bn and $13bn from the company before taxes.

Last year, Purdue entered a tentative settlement and has been trying to complete it through bankruptcy court. The deal calls for the family to give up ownership of Purdue, which would be turned into a public benefit corporation with its proceeds going to combat the addiction crisis.

Under the deal, family members would also pay at least $3bn in cash over time. Most Democratic state attorneys general oppose the settlement, saying they want more accountability for Sackler family members.

Last month, the company pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges as part of a deal to settle claims with the federal government. The agreement did not result in criminal claims against Sackler family members but left open the possibility that some could be brought.

Source: AP