Becca Bashford investigates the ties between the University of Sussex and the family who have been accused of creating an opioid epidemic in the U.S. which has claimed the lives of thousands.
It has been public knowledge for nearly a decade that the University of Sussex has accepted large donations from the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation. What has recently come to light, however, is how the foundation is linked to one of the most high-profile lawsuits in US Pharmaceutical history. Theresa Sackler, namesake and trustee of the foundation, has recently been named in a lawsuit that has been filed by over 500 U.S. counties, cities, and Native American tribes which states that the Sackler family played a personal role in creating, and sustaining, the opioid epidemic in America with their creation and subsequent misbranding of OxyContin.
The reputation of the Sackler family and their role in the opioid epidemic is historic, with lawsuits dating back to 2004. This raises inevitable questions about the University of Sussex’s decision to accept money from the Sackler’s between the years of 2010 to 2018, while the family and their flagship company – Purdue Pharma – were embroiled in accusations, and admissions, of illegal activity, which are directly linked to the deaths of thousands of people.
In a statement released to The Badger, The University of Sussex have clarified that £3.3 million has already been received from the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation. Sussex have exclusively said that they decided “…not to progress with a further pledge of £6 million”. However, The University of Sussex have failed to explicitly rule out accepting more donations from the Sackler’s and their related trusts in the future, instead stating that they are “not currently in discussion about any future donations”. The University also failed to answer when we asked why they had continued to accept donations over a ten year period, while the Sackler’s and Purdue Pharma were embedded in lawsuits relating to the opioid epidemic.
In light of the most recent lawsuit and their history of donations to the University of Sussex, The Badger thought it prudent to analyse the role the Sackler’s have played in the opioid epidemic. This investigation details the creation of Purdue Pharma and OxyContin, the personal role the Sackler’s took in the creation and branding of the drug, a timeline of lawsuits and charges against Purdue – and now members of the Sackler family themselves – and finally, the University’s response to our questions about the donations made to Sussex.
Who are the Sackler family?
The Sackler Family are primarily known for their generous philanthropic giving. The family have donated millions of dollars to the world’s leading institutions, including but not limited to: The MET, The Guggenheim, The Tate, The V&A, Shakespeare’s Globe, Harvard University, the University of Oxford, Imperial University, King’s College London, and the University of Sussex.
Their stellar reputation as philanthropists and champions of the arts has been clouded, however, due to the controversies surrounding Purdue Pharma, one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. The company was founded in 1952 by brothers and medical doctors Raymond and Mortimer Sackler. After the death of Arthur Sackler, the eldest brother in the Sackler Family who helped finance the sale of Purdue, Raymond and Mortimer took control of his one-third stake – making them, and them alone, co-owners of the company. The company has birthed smaller pharmaceutical organisations, which are also controlled by descendants of the Sackler family.
In 1996, Purdue announced the launch of what would become their largest-selling product, OxyContin, an opioid painkiller that is more potent than heroin or morphine. OxyContin was extensively marketed by Purdue, and by the Sackler’s themselves. At the drug’s launch event, Richard Sackler stated that the debut of OxyContin “…will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition”. When it became evident that addiction to the drug was rapidly growing, Richard Sackler pushed even harder against accusations that the drug was the problem, instead placing blame on those who were suffering from addiction. In an email that is being used in the most recent lawsuit against the family, Sackler said: “We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible. They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”
Issues surrounding addiction and overdose from OxyContin began to grow at a terrifying and rapid pace. According to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) infographic about opioid use in America,, 2.1 million people had an opioid-related disorder in 2017, and by 2018, 47,600 people died from overdosing on opioids. It is now estimated that up to 130 people a day die from opioid-related overdoses in the U.S. The situation became an epidemic, and was officially declared a public health emergency last year by the Trump administration. The continued sale and prescription of OxyContin has garnered widespread criticism from American political figures, such as presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren – this is unsurprising when we consider how early concerns were raised about the true nature of the drug.
As early as 2004, just eight years after the launch of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma were sued by the West Virginia Attorney General over their marketing of the drug. Patients had begun to report that the effects of the painkiller wore off long before the 12-hour timeframe. According to an LA Times investigation, Purdue wanted to maintain the idea that OxyContin’s effects would last the 12 hours stated, as this was the main selling point of the drug – the selling point which differentiated it from standard, prescription painkillers with a shorter time frame for effectiveness. To achieve this, The LA Times reported that Purdue told doctors to prescribe stronger doses, instead of more frequent ones, and that Purdue executives “…mobilised hundreds of sales reps to “refocus” physicians on 12 hour dosing”. Experts say taking higher, more potent doses of opioids inevitably increase the risk of overdose, but also foster patterns of addiction. Theodore J. Cicero, a neuropharmacologist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said that when the drug doesn’t last the full 12 hours, patients can suffer from “…both a return of their underlying pain, and the beginning stages of acute withdrawal.”
Purdue were ordered to pay $10 million in fines because of their “deceptive marketing”, but evidence about the drug’s dangers was kept sealed and confidential. The timeline of trials and convictions against Purdue Pharma spans nearly 15 years, and is still ongoing, but the Sackler’s have only been personally implicated in the last year.
As opioid related deaths have mounted, so has criticism against the Sackler family. The lawsuits filed in the last two years have been particularly devastating to their reputation. The 2018 lawsuit, on the charge of deceptive marketing practices and filed by 6 U.S states (Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee and Texas) stated: “Eight people in a single family made the choices that caused much of the opioid epidemic. This nation is facing an unprecedented opioid addiction epidemic that was initiated and perpetuated by the Sackler defendants for their own financial gain.”
2004: West Virginia State charge Purdue Pharma with “deceptive marketing”, claiming that recipients of the drug felt the effects of the drug wore off long before the 12 hour window. The case never went to trial, rather, Purdue settled for $10 million, and the evidence was kept sealed and confidential.
2007: A US federal court in West Virginia filed a lawsuit against Purdue, and Purdue plead guilty to misleading the public about OxyContin’s risk of addiction. This soon became one of the largest Pharma settlements in American history. The company’s President, top lawyer, and chief medical officer plead guilty as individuals to the charges of misbranding the drug, and were ordered to pay 34.5 million in damages. Three of the top executives were also charged with felonies, and ordered to do 400 hours in community service.
2010: The University of Sussex begin to accept donations from the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation, and these donations continue until 2018.
2015: Officials in Kentucky sue Purdue Pharma for the widespread abuse of OxyContin. A settlement was reached that saw the company paying the state $24 million.
2017: The city of Everett, Washington, sue Purdue for not declaring odd patterns of sale and the overuse and over-selling of OxyContin. The suit states that Purdue were aware of this but did not follow proper legal proceedings and declare the issue to the DEA. The outcome of this suit is yet to be determined, with issues such as the loss and compromised quality of life for Everett citizens to also be considered alongside the criminal charges. Purdue responded: “While we vigorously deny the allegations, we share public officials’ concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions.”
May 2018 – Jan 2019: Thirty six U.S states filed lawsuits against Purdue for “deceptive marketing practises”, stating that the owners deliberately mislead doctors, regulators, and by extension the public about the dangers of OxyContin for their own financial gain. Purdue pharma released a statement which read: “Purdue Pharma continues to work with all plaintiffs on reaching a comprehensive resolution to its opioid litigation that will deliver billions of dollars and vital opioid overdose rescue medications to communities across the country”. The case is ongoing, but last month Purdue Pharma reached a deal with 23 of the states over deceptive marketing. Under the terms of the deal, the Sackler’s would admit no wrongdoing but relinquish control of Purdue Pharma, which would declare bankruptcy and be resurrected as a trust whose main purpose would be producing medications to combat the opioid epidemic. Purdue said it “continues to work with all plaintiffs on reaching a comprehensive resolution to its opioid litigation that will deliver billions of dollars and vital opioid overdose rescue medicines to communities across the country impacted by the opioid crisis.”
August 2019: Members of the Sackler Family are named in a lawsuit concerning the opioid epidemic for the first time. Eight members of the family, including Theresa Sackler, face up to $500 million in charges. The lawsuit was filed by the Southern District of New York, and represents over 500 U.S counties, cities, and Native American tribes. The family and Purdue deny wrongdoing. Robert Josephson, a Purdue spokesman, said in an emailed statement to the Bloomberg news agency: “This complaint is part of a continuing effort by contingency-fee counsel to single out Purdue, blame it for the entire opioid crisis in the United States, and try the case in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system.’’
How are The University of Sussex involved?
In light of the legal proceedings against the Sackler’s, and their morally questionable status as philanthropists, The Badger asked The University of Sussex the following questions:
- How much money was donated by The Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation to The University of Sussex?
- What was the money used for?
- When was money donated to the University?
- Why are the donation figures omitted from the Department of Informatics page which details research grants and donations, despite all other donation amounts except one being explicitly stated?
- Will the university accept any future donations from the Sackler Foundation, in light of this recent lawsuit?
- Why did the university continue to accept donations from the Foundation up until 2018, despite the lawsuits being filed and charged as early as 2007? This is stated on the Department of Informatics page which details research grants and donations.
- The Sackler Trust have announced that they will be pausing future donations, but will honour ongoing donations. Does this apply to donations made, or being made, to the University of Sussex?
- Is the university willing to acknowledge that donations from the Sackler family and their related trusts should no longer be taken in good faith, in light of the ongoing trials, and more significantly after thousands of deaths have been linked to opioid abuse?
According to a recent Guardian article, “the University of Sussex has received $9.8 million in donations” which supports the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science. A university spokesman told the Guardian that Sussex “…actually received about $4m over the past decade, while another pledge was not progressed”.
A University Spokesperson exclusively told The Badger:
“The University of Sussex has received £3.3 million from the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation over the past ten years.”
The university did not respond to the question regarding why Sussex continued to accept money from the Sackler Foundation as late as last year, in light of the mounting lawsuits.
When we asked what the money was used for, the spokesperson said:
“The funding has supported the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science, which informs critical clinical interventions to a wide range of neurological and psychiatric disorders, such as depression, schizophrenia and dementia. This work, carried out here at Sussex by some of the most highly skilled researchers in their field, is of paramount importance and will continue for many years to come.”
We asked the University if, in light of the recent lawsuits and mounting deaths, money from the Sackler family and their related trusts could be taken in good faith, and if the University would be accepting more money from them. The Badger can exclusively reveal that Sussex rejected a further £6 million pledge from the Sackler Foundation:
“This year, and in light of the legal situation in the US, the University and Sackler Trust decided not to progress with a further £6 million pledge. The University and Sackler Foundation and Sackler Trust are not in discussion about any future donations.”
While it is encouraging that the university decided not to go forward with this significantly large pledge, it is worth noting that while Sussex said they are “not in discussions about future donations”, they did not explicitly say that they would not accept any more money from an ethical standpoint. Dr Andrew Kolodny, a leading critic of the family who heads a program on opioid policy at Brandeis University and testified against Purdue in court, said: “Money from the Sacklers should be understood as blood money, universities shouldn’t take it, and universities that have taken it should give it back.”
Within the last year, a wave of significant institutions – such as The Tate, The Guggenheim, and The National Portrait Gallery – have cut all ties with the Sackler family because of the role they played in the opioid epidemic. Mike Moore, former Mississippi attorney general, said that the Sackler’s philanthropic giving is nothing less than “reputation laundering”.