He is one of the most elusive yet notorious figures in medicine. He is so private that few public photographs of him exist. And for years, he and his lawyers have rebuffed efforts to unearth details about his role in building the colossus of OxyContin, the opioid painkiller.
But newly disclosed documents provide a glimpse into the mindset and decision-making of Dr. Richard Sackler, the onetime chief executive of Purdue Pharma and a key member of the family that controls the company.
Together, they suggest how intensely invested Sackler was in OxyContin’s fortunes after its 1996 launch; how forcefully he pushed employees to increase sales of the drug and other Purdue medications; and how he considered steamrolling concerns that might limit those ambitions.
“You won’t believe how committed I am to make OxyContin a huge success,” he wrote in a May 29, 1999, email cited in one of the documents. “It is almost that I dedicated my life to it. After the initial launch phase, I will have to catch up with my private life again.”
The filings include written material and quotations taken directly from a man who has been publicly silent about the source of his family’s billions but who is now at the center of a public firestorm. That firestorm concerns the question of whether his family’s company ignored warnings and deceived doctors to maximize prescriptions of its lucrative drugs, all while helping to seed today’s addiction crisis.
The details come from a 2015 deposition of Sackler, which was published Thursday by STAT and ProPublica and which Purdue has fought for years to keep secret, as well as from a lawsuit filed by the Massachusetts attorney general, which was publicly released in full last month despite Purdue’s legal efforts to keep portions of it under seal.
In the deposition, which was taken as part of a since-settled lawsuit filed by the state of Kentucky, Sackler repeatedly defends his actions. He claims he was motivated by an interest in making the best possible medications for patients in pain. He also dismisses as simply misunderstood or innocuous any evidence that might be perceived as damaging.
The sales tactics deployed by Purdue, which included rewarding top representatives with trips to Bermuda or London, were just what drug companies did, Sackler told a questioner.
His remark that it was almost as though he had dedicated his life to the OxyContin franchise? That was his way of nudging an employee to focus more on the painkiller than on sales of an older Purdue drug. “This was in the spirit of motivating her,” he said.
Purdue has said the Massachusetts lawsuit, which cites excerpts of emails and memos from Sackler, “is riddled with demonstrably inaccurate allegations” and accused the state of cherry-picking “snippets from tens of millions of documents and grossly distorting their meaning.” The company has denied the state’s allegations and notes that OxyContin and its other medicines are approved and regulated by government agencies.
In a response to the publication of the deposition Thursday, Purdue said it stood behind Sackler’s testimony.
Purdue has come under fire for its marketing tactics before. In 2007, the company and three executives pleaded guilty in federal court to understating the risk of addiction of OxyContin. But the plea deal did not include any of the Sacklers, who, according to the Massachusetts lawsuit, have long constituted the majority of the Purdue board.
Instead, the family, which Forbes listed as one of the 20 wealthiest in the country in 2016, has burnished its reputation for decades by donating portions of the wealth it accrued from Purdue to research centers, hospitals, and cultural institutions around the world. Members of the family have rarely spoken publicly about their company or its medications; even the Purdue website includes few references to the family.
For Richard Sackler, who is in his 70s, only a few cursory biographical details are regularly mentioned: son of Raymond Sackler, one of the brothers who built Purdue; a medical degree from New York University; a career at Purdue that started in 1971 as assistant to the president and a term as CEO from 1999 to 2003, when he became co-chairman of the board.
The Sacklers have not entirely escaped scrutiny. In 2001, for example, Richard Blumenthal, then the Connecticut attorney general, asked Richard Sackler to “completely overhaul and reform” how the company was marketing the painkiller. But only in recent years, as the number of opioid overdoses surged, has attention on the family intensified, with public officials ramping up investigations and journalists increasingly digging into the family’s records.
Meanwhile, institutions that have taken donations from the Sacklers — in some cases naming schools or wings of buildings after the family — are grappling with pressure to take action of their own.
In one possible sign of the sensitivity of the issue, the Yale School of Medicine recently removed a 2014 public affairs story from its site in which a dean called Sackler a “steadfast friend of the medical school.” The story was still posted as late as Feb. 7 of this year, according to an archived page. A photo shows a besuited Sackler standing in between two smiling Yale faculty members.
In the past few years, more than a thousand cities, counties, tribes, and states have sued Purdue and others in the opioid supply chain, including drug makers, distributors, and pharmacies. Most of those cases have been consolidated into a federal litigation in Ohio.
When it filed its lawsuit in June 2018, Massachusetts went a step further than other communities: In addition to Purdue, it named members of the Sackler family, as well as current and former executives, as defendants. It alleges that the company continued its illegal marketing of OxyContin after the 2007 plea agreement.
The lawsuit casts Richard Sackler as a domineering micromanager who exasperated his employees with frequent demands for better sales numbers. A 2008 memo from him stressed the importance of finding a CEO who would be loyal to family.
The characterization effectively fleshes out the portrayal of Sackler that critics have long sketched: an executive who prioritized profits.
“We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible,” Sackler wrote in a February 2001 email, outlining a strategy to divert the blame for addiction away from the drugs onto the people who used them. “They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”
The lawsuit says Richard Sackler left the Purdue board in July 2018.
Emails introduced in the Kentucky deposition, meanwhile, show Sackler supported a strategy to conceal OxyContin’s strength from doctors as a means of boosting prescriptions and sales. But, in answering questions during the deposition, he portrays suggestions of greed or deception as anodyne non-stories.
The lead lawyer in the deposition, Tyler Thompson, cites company emails from 1997 about the decision by German regulators to designate OxyContin as a controlled substance, which put more prescribing regulations on the drug. Robert Kaiko, the Purdue employee in charge of OxyContin’s development, wrote that if it were uncontrolled, “it is highly likely that it will eventually be abused there and then controlled. This may be more damaging to OxyContin internationally than any temporarily higher sales that could be gleaned from an uncontrolled status.”
Sackler replied: “This is the first time I’ve heard of this idea. … How substantially would it improve your sales?” Sackler also asked if it was possible to appeal the decision to list OxyContin as controlled; he was told it was not.
When Thompson asked Sackler why he raised the appeal, Sackler said it was “just to be polite” and that he supported the controls.
Thompson then introduced another email from Sackler: “When we are next together we should talk about how this [appeal] idea was raised and why it failed to be realized. I thought it was a good idea if it could be done.”
When asked for his response, Sackler told Thompson: “That’s what it said, but I didn’t mean it. I just wanted to be encouraging. I was very glad it was closed.”
During the questioning, Sackler also denied Purdue misled doctors about the potency of OxyContin. He said that the lawyers misunderstood how he and the Purdue employees used the words “stronger” and “weaker” in their old emails. He said Purdue has always made clear OxyContin is twice as potent as morphine, but that the company wanted to avoid a reputation that OxyContin was “stronger,” which he said would mean doctors and patients would only view it as a drug to be used mainly at the end of someone’s life.
“I know that this could cause real confusion reading these documents if you’re not involved day to day, but there is no way that any of the people on these documents understood ‘stronger’ to mean more potent, ‘weaker’ to mean less potent,” Sackler told Thompson.
In Purdue’s statement Thursday, it said Sackler had made clear that the company emphasized OxyContin’s potency.
During the deposition, Thompson also asked Sackler if Purdue’s marketing and promotion of OxyContin “caused any of the prescription drug addiction problems now plaguing the Commonwealth?”
“I don’t believe so,” Sackler replied.
Thompson continued: “Sitting here today, after all you’ve come to learn as a witness, do you believe that Purdue’s conduct in Kentucky has led to an excessive or unnecessary amount of opioids being located throughout the Commonwealth of Kentucky?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“Do you believe that any of Purdue’s conduct has led to an increase in people being addicted in the Commonwealth of Kentucky?”
“No,” Sackler said.