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Sackler family faces continuing legal issues over OxyContin

The Sackler family, once known for philanthropy, has been embroiled in lawsuits and settlements to keep details of its pharmaceutical company's activities out of public view. Purdue Pharma is the maker of the highly addictive opioid OxyContin. Author and former New York Times reporter Barry Meier joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss his reporting on the opioid epidemic and the Sacklers.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Purdue Pharma is the maker of the highly addictive opioid OxyContin. The family that owns the company the Sacklers have been embroiled in lawsuits and multi-million dollar settlements to keep the company's role in the opioid crisis out of the public eye. The family is well-known for their philanthropy but many of the prestigious institutions that received money from the Sacklers are distancing themselves and have decided to stop accepting their gifts. I recently spoke with Barry Meier who has covered the opioid epidemic the Sackler family and the ongoing legal cases for the New York Times. He's also the author of pain killer an empire of deceit and the origin of America's opioid epidemic. A new edition was published in 2018. Let's start with where we're at right now. It seems that there are lots and lots of people and cities and companies suing the Sackler family as well as Purdue Pharma for the disaster that's happened opioid epidemic.

  • Barry Meier:

    Yes it's very hard to keep track at this point because there's been a landslide of cases upwards of more than a thousand. I believe at this point we're either Purdue Pharma or the Sackler family is named in those lawsuits.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Now those lawsuits brought the family on board partly because the family had an active role in managing what was this crisis and we started to see that in dribs and drabs from e-mail dumps and you saw that the last name Sackler. Here's what they're doing marketing this drug.

  • Barry Meier:

    Yeah one of the remarkable things about this story is that for a large part of it you know really over the last two decades when I first got involved the Sacklers were able to create this illusion that they were hands off. They were basically the benefactors of this country. The company they were the philanthropist that took money that they made and gave it to museums and to medical schools. But now we're seeing that they were sort of up to their eyeballs in the operations of the company. In fact their e-mails which were you have like subordinates managers vice presidents kind of screaming that Richard Sackler one of the family members is like micromanaging the operation.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is it possible then for some sort of grand settlement to be reached? I mean if we're talking about a thousand something lawsuits that could be billions and billions of dollars I'm assuming that this company in the meantime would say sorry we don't have to declare bankruptcy just to shield themselves.

  • Barry Meier:

    And there you had a manageable number of plaintiffs you had the 48 states and a few cities. And so they were able to craft a global settlement. Here you have states you have counties you have Native American tribes you have various localities. And I don't see how they're going to negotiate the type of global settlement of these cases that's going to lead to peace for the companies you don't have to be negotiated piecemeal. They're going to have to settle with some of the major defendants and take their chances with others or simply go into bankruptcy and use that as a shield to hold off the litigation.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Most major cities around the country possibly around different parts of the world the Sackler name is something that they see as they walk into an art museum or a gallery. Right? What's happened to that name in that world?

  • Barry Meier:

    Well they're saying it in a very different way now. They're seeing it as a company as a family that were the beneficiaries both of legitimate drug sales. And. Illegal drug sales. And one of the conundrums that faces a Sattler's right now and part of the reason why certain museums are beginning to reject their donations is the question of. What did this company what did this family do. With the money that they received. From drug sales that clearly were not. Legitimate. I mean they made. Millions if not billions from legitimate drug sales and no one really questions that. The question is what did they do with the money or how did they handle the money that came from sales from street sales of OxyContin. Do they just say well we don't have any control over that. We'll take the money anyway. Or did they ever have qualms about that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    What can happen here? I mean you've talked to the end user the victims the families that are surviving. That seems a pretty long stretch from the kind of high minded art world right. So the person that might be an Appalachian somewhere who has suffered at the hands of this drug what does their relief what what can they get?

  • Barry Meier:

    You know I think the the best one can hope for is that there are money said side through this litigation for drug treatment. I mean that is the. Benefit that will flow from this litigation. It's not going to be a benefit that will make plaintiffs lawyers rich. That's the worst thing that could happen from this. I mean I hope that the vast majority of this money is going to go into drug treatment. I think the other benefit that will accrue if. Attorney generals and plaintiffs lawyers force these documents to become public is that we as a society will know finally what happened during this epidemic. I mean we're dealing with the greatest public health crisis of the 21st century. We don't know how the Sacklers comported themselves during it. They claim you know we have clean hands. We're now seeing documents suggesting otherwise. The last thing the worst thing that could happen is for these cases to be settled. And for these documents to be once again sealed. From public view. The people that lost loved ones to this epidemic. We as a society. Really do need to know what the Sacklers knew. How they behave the decisions that they made not just within perdu but how these other executives behave. You know the people that Ron Johnson Johnson the people that ran the big drug distributors. You know they were dumping. Tens of millions of pain pills into places like West Virginia. What kind of decisions they make.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Is this having an effect on the rest of the pharma industry? Obviously this was a much smaller company had much more of a family control unlike the super big ones that we're all familiar with but considering now that every email that's being brought out I'm assuming if you're at Merck or at Pfizer you're sitting there thinking what do I want to type this right now.

  • Barry Meier:

    Yeah I mean I think it's been many years since anyone put anything in an e-mail that could be damaging they have you know people have gotten wise to that. However. There is information I suspect. Within e-mails that were written say a decade ago or 12 years ago or even eight years ago where we can see the corporate decisions that are being made. And one of the curious things about this whole epidemic was back in 2007. When produce settled the lawsuit against it the Justice Department was going to originally the prosecutors in the case were recommending charging three top top executives a Purdue Pharma with felonies crimes that could send them to prison. The top officials at the Justice Department blocked that from happening. They required them basically to only charge them with misdemeanors. So basically people ended up with a slap on the wrist. And you know I think. Hopefully going forward we will take away a lesson that. Corporate executives. That knowingly allowed drugs to be sold on the street that don't prevent that. From happening really bear the same sort of criminal liability that strict drug dealers do and should be dealt with in the same way.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Finally I know you're reporting on this has spanned decades now. What are you looking forward to what's the next shoe to drop?

  • Barry Meier:

    The truth. I think we're at a point where. We as a society need to know the truth. We need to know the truth about what the Sacklers know. We need to know the truth about what the executives of these other companies knew. And you know. We need to know when we walk past a museum that has the Sackler name on it or a medical school. That has the Sackler name on it. What did the family know. I mean it's lovely to walk into the Metropolitan Museum and see the temple of Dendur. I do that all the time I love archaeology. But I want to know about the decisions this family made that allowed them to make the money. That purchase this art that you know purchased purchased the rights for them to put their names on these buildings. Very minor. Thanks so much. It's my been my pleasure.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Barry Meier, thanks so much.

  • Barry Meier:

    It's been my pleasure.

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