Pharma Mogul Raymond Sackler, Whose Drug Spawned An Epidemic, Died Peacefully At 97

91 Americans died of opioid overdoses the same day.
07/19/2017 02:27 pm ET Updated Jul 19, 2017
George Frey / Reuters

On Tuesday, OxyContin manufacturer Raymond Sackler died at the age of 97. The same day, 91 other Americans died due to lethal overdoses of the pill that made Sackler a billionaire. Sackler died in comfort, in a hospital bed, with the best possible medical care, “following a brief illness.”

The 91 people killed by opioids, including Purdue Pharma’s bestselling product? Who knows. Maybe they died alone, or at home. Maybe they died in the backs of ambulances, while EMTs tried to give them a life-saving dose of Narcan. Maybe they faded out on their parents’ couch and never woke up. Maybe they died in their cars, parked in front of their place of business. Maybe they passed, never knowing exactly what was wrong with them and why they couldn’t seem to feel right without the white, green, and blue narcotic pills their doctors gave them.

Sackler is survived by his wife and two sons. Who is standing at the graves of the other 91 people who died July 17? Sackler, whose company is estimated at $13 billion, will be buried with dignity. His life will be celebrated by his friends, associates, and loved ones. We can’t say the same thing about the dead Americans he built his fortune on. OxyContin robbed families of their parents, children, neighbors and communities. This medically sanctioned genocide has put more Americans in the ground this year than the entire Vietnam War. Opioids like the ones manufactured by Purdue Pharma kill at a higher rate than guns and car accidents combined.

His product, OxyContin, created a drug epidemic that is now the leading cause of death for people under 50.

I’m reluctant to speak ill of the dead, but Sackler was no hero. He was a businessman whose greed has poisoned our nation and directly contributed to the deadly drug epidemic that’s killed millions of Americans. Sackler and his brothers bought Purdue Pharma in 1952 and for decades sold common-sense medications like earwax remover and laxatives. Then, in the 1990s, they hit on a time-released narcotic they called OxyContin. By convincing doctors that OxyContin was “safer,” offering financial support and special perks to family physicians who were willing to push the drug, and investing millions in a marketing campaign that claimed OxyContin was not only harmless but beneficial, Purdue Pharma cornered the pain pill market. By 2003, Purdue was selling $1.6 billion of the pill annually.

Purdue’s products created chemical dependency where it didn’t exist before. Young children, seniors, and people with simple injuries or dental work got hooked on the drug. The highly addictive medication’s “time lapse” mechanism didn’t work if the pill was crushed or chewed. Unsurprisingly, many people who discovered this developed advanced problems with opioids. Some, like me, ended up using heroin and even injecting the drug. In 2007, when federal prosecutors took the company to court, the punishment was minimal. Purdue pled guilty to “mis-marketing” OxyContin and paid a mere $600 million in damages. That’s a tiny fraction of their annual revenue: an insult to the families of the people who were killed by Purdue’s drugs in the name of corporate profit.

In 2015, the state of Kentucky tried again, when record numbers of injured coal miners became addicted to the drug. Attorney General Jack Conway said, “Purdue lit a fire of addiction with OxyContin that spread across this state, and Kentucky is still reeling from its effects.” Purdue initially offered the state half a million dollars to settle out of court. The final settlement was for $24 million. Again, that’s pocket change for a company like Purdue. And, once again, Purdue did not acknowledge wrongdoing.

Raymond Sackler died with American blood on his hands. Since the 1990s, he’s made billions of dollars selling a product that is known to be dangerous, highly addictive, and even deadly. He got to live over 97 years on this earth, yet his product, OxyContin, created a drug epidemic that is now the leading cause of death for people under 50. As he is laid to rest, he will be remembered as one of the primary actors in creating a health crisis that will have unknown, frightening consequences for generations in our country.

Because of Sackler and pharmaceutical companies like Purdue, people who should be enjoying their retirement are going back to work and struggling to raise their children’s kids. Treatment centers are overloaded with people desperate to find recovery. One person dies every four minutes due to drug and alcohol related causes. This is the world Purdue Pharma built through decades of pushing lethal narcotics into the American health care system: narcotics that it insisted were perfectly safe for anyone to take.

$13 billion. That’s what the deaths of millions of men, women, and children were worth to Sackler. It was never about helping people. It was never about medicine. It was all for revenue.

May God have mercy on his soul. Because Sackler certainly had no mercy on us.

Ryan Hampton is an outreach lead and recovery advocate at Facing Addiction, a leading nonprofit dedicated to ending the addiction crisis in the United States.

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