The Temple of Dendur is in the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, in the expansive Sackler Wing. Visiting the Temple of Dendur is one of my favorite things to do on a visit to the Museum.
The United States is experiencing an unprecedented opioid crisis, with many people entering the addiction process with a prescription for OxyContin to treat pain, then moving on to heroin.
What does one have to do with the other? The Sackler family, through Purdue Pharma, makes and markets OxyContin, primarily by cultivating the physicians who prescribe it. As the company is now seeing its U.S. markets under pressure through efforts to reduce addiction by getting doctors to write fewer scripts and for shorter periods of time, Purdue Pharma is attempting to repeat their success — or recreate the opioid epidemic — abroad.
Great philanthropic fortunes were often made by men known as “robber barons” — names like Carnegie and Rockefeller and Vanderbilt come to mind. We think of it as past history. It isn’t. The exact same pattern is repeating in current time, as the Sackler family enjoys its wealth and basks in recognition for charitable works while the opioid epidemic that their company has fueled rages on.
“Since 1999, two hundred thousand Americans have died from overdoses related to OxyContin and other prescription opioids. Many addicts, finding prescription painkillers too expensive or too difficult to obtain, have turned to heroin. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, four out of five people who try heroin today started with prescription painkillers. The most recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that a hundred and forty-five Americans now die every day from opioid overdoses.”
Whose job is it to pay for the treatment to repair families ravaged by opioid addiction? Some might argue that the enormously wealthy Sackler family has a role to play.
“It’s amazing how they are left out of the debate about causation, but also about solutions,” Allen Frances, the Duke psychiatrist, said of the Sacklers. “A truly philanthropic family, looking at the last twenty years, would say, ‘You know, there’s several million Americans who are addicted, directly or indirectly, because of us.’ Real philanthropy would be to contribute money to taking care of them. At this point, adding their name to a building—it rings hollow. It’s not philanthropy. It’s just a glorification of the Sackler family.” According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, more than two and a half million Americans have an opioid-use disorder. Frances continued, “If the Sacklers wanted to clear their name, they could take a very substantial fraction of that fortune and create a mechanism for providing free treatment for everyone who’s become addicted.” Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, created the Nobel Peace Prize. In recent years, several philanthropic organizations run by the descendants of John D. Rockefeller have devoted resources to addressing climate change and critiquing the environmental record of the oil company he founded, now called ExxonMobil. Last year, Valerie Rockefeller Wayne told CBS, “Because the source of the family wealth is fossil fuels, we feel an enormous moral responsibility.”
I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the Sackler family to pony up. But I’d hope we’d somehow find a way to prevent them from taking their opioid addiction marketing machine global.