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Question of the Week — Should institutions return past donations from Big Pharma executives and their family members implicated in the opioid crisis?

Posted  May 23, 2019

The New York Times recently reported that the Metropolitan Museum of Art has decided to stop accepting gifts from members of the Sackler family linked to Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, one of the drugs at the center of the opioid epidemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans in the past two decades. The Met’s decision follows that of other museums and universities, including the Tate Modern, the Guggenheim Museum, the American Museum of Natural History, and Columbia University, which have also ceased to accept donations from the Sackler family and their foundations.

Purdue Pharma was founded by Arthur, Mortimer, and Raymond Sackler in 1952 and began selling OxyContin in 1996. Arthur Sackler died in 1987 and his heirs sold their stake in Purdue Pharma after his death. His wife, Jillian Sackler, is the president and chief executive of the Dame Jillian and Dr. Arthur M. Sackler Foundation for the Arts, Sciences and Humanities. She recently argued in a Washington Post Op-Ed that neither Arthur Sackler nor his heirs had anything to do with the manufacture or marketing of OxyContin. Therefore, “blaming him for OxyContin’s marketing, or for any other wrongdoing by the pharmaceutical industry, is as ludicrous as blaming the inventor of the mimeograph for email spam.” But an article in the New England Journal of Medicine paints a more complicated story, describing Arthur Sackler as a “pioneer” in monetizing the interface between the pharmaceutical industry and physicians, which led to the tactics used by his brothers and heirs to sell OxyContin.

Several members of the Sackler family, including Mortimer Sackler, the sole surviving co-founder of Purdue Pharma, and Richard Sackler, the son of Raymond Sackler, are named as defendants in a lawsuit filed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts alleging that the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma intentionally mislead doctors and patients about the risk of addiction from OxyContin. The lawsuit cites internal Purdue Pharma documents, including a 2001 email from Richard Sackler, when he was president of the company, describing people addicted to OxyContin as “reckless criminals” who are to blame for the opioid crisis. Purdue Pharma and certain members of the Sackler family recently agreed to pay $270 million to settle a similar lawsuit brought by the State of Oklahoma. They are also defendants in approximately 1600 opioid lawsuits brought by various cities, municipalities, Native American tribes, and other entities consolidated in federal court in Cleveland, Ohio. Neither Purdue Pharma nor the Sackler family have admitted fault in any of these lawsuits or settlements.

The Sackler family is reported to have given tens of millions of dollars and put its name in or on museums, universities and medical schools in the United States, England, and Israel. For example, one of the Met’s biggest attractions is the Temple of Dendur, which sits inside the museum’s glass-enclosed Sackler Wing. Similarly, the Museum of Natural History in New York is reported to have received at least $6 million from the Mortimer D. Sackler Foundation to help fund the museum’s Sackler Educational Laboratory. And the Smithsonian museum in Washington D.C. has received Sackler family money to build the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The Sackler name remains on these and other buildings. But, so far, none of these institutions have decided to return the Sackler family’s past donations, nor excised the Sackler name from public-facing structures. They have merely decided to not accept future Sackler donations.

Should museums and institutions return past donations from Big Pharma executives and their family members implicated in the opioid crisis, and remove the names of these donors from buildings?

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