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What Purdue Pharma's Tentative Settlement Would Mean For The Sackler Family


While we wait for more news on the tentative settlement agreement between more than 2,000 local governments and states and the drugmaker Purdue Pharma, we're going to talk about what this would mean for the Sackler family, the people who own Purdue Pharma.

Until recently, the Sacklers were best known for their philanthropy. But over the past couple years, it's come to light that members of the family were directly involved in pushing OxyContin, even as more and more information surfaced about its addictive properties.

Joanna Walters has written about the Sackler family for the Guardian, and she joins us now. Welcome.


CHANG: So can you just start us off by giving us a sense of, how directly involved were the Sacklers in making OxyContin a commercial success?

WALTERS: It depends who you believe - whether you believe the allegations in the thousands of lawsuits or whether you believe what the Sackler family have said and what they have put forward in court to counter the allegations, if you like.

So there's a couple of branches of the family; there's the millionaires and the billionaires. And the folks at the top of the billionaire branch of the family have wholly owned Purdue Pharma. And the two patriarchs of that branch of the family started Purdue Pharma. They actually ran it.

And then other members of the family had executive roles, and some members the family had board member roles. A core group of them, it seems - from what we understand - were, you know, very closely involved behind the sales and marketing strategy of the company.

CHANG: How many family members, would you say?

WALTERS: Well, those that are being sued by name, there's a core group of eight family members. And so their forebears, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, are dead. And then Mortimer and Raymond's widows and a core group of their children and a grandchild are the group that are being sued.

CHANG: Got it. Now, a number of state attorneys general have spoken out against this tentative deal, saying it nowhere goes far enough in holding the Sacklers personally accountable. Under the deal, the family would pay $3 billion from their personal fortunes. How does that sum, 3 billion, compare to the amount of money that they made as a family on OxyContin?

WALTERS: Yeah, the family is very private. And there's never been an absolutely comprehensive estimate of exactly what they're worth. Forbes, a couple of years ago, valued the family at $14 billion.

CHANG: Do we know what portion of that wealth was made from OxyContin?

WALTERS: Most of it.

CHANG: Most of it.

WALTERS: Yeah. That's their moneymaker. OxyContin is their moneymaker. Now, they have pointed out that it's only a small percentage of the opioids on the market, but it's a very lucrative portion of that market.

CHANG: Now, I understand that they have moved a lot of their fortune overseas. Do we know how much money we're talking about there?

WALTERS: We don't. No, not exactly. It's very shrouded. The company is privately held and very opaque.

CHANG: Yeah.

WALTERS: A lot of it is in property. They've got mansions. They've got estates. They've got places in Beverly Hills, in, you know, New York City, in the Hamptons, in London. But in terms of what they might have in offshore trusts or that kind of thing, it's very, very unclear.

CHANG: Well, I ask about the offshore money because there are so many lawsuits against the Sacklers right now. There are probably more on the way. Could these plaintiffs in the U.S. get at that overseas money?

WALTERS: It's hard to know how easy or difficult that would be. You know? I mean, lawyers that I've spoken to say you can kind of put claims on people's property. You can have a go at getting hold of money that's been stashed overseas. But you have to wonder, in practical terms, whether that would actually be possible.

And also, you know, for that, I think you'd need a case decision. You wouldn't be looking at a settlement. And so I think the whole point of a settlement is that Purdue and the members of the Sackler family, you know, they get to agree a price. And so - it's not impossible to go after money that's some - stashed in obscure places, but it's extremely difficult.

CHANG: Speaking of the settlement, I want to read part of a statement that the Sacklers released yesterday. They say that they support, quote, "working toward a global resolution that directs resources to the patients, families and communities across the country who are suffering and need assistance," end quote.

I notice that the Sacklers are not admitting any wrongdoing, should this settlement go through. So let me ask you this: in profiling this family, in speaking to their close associates, is that their actual perspective - that they've done nothing wrong; that they may be willing to part with billions of dollars to make these lawsuits go away, but they do not feel personally responsible?

WALTERS: From what one reads and what one hears, you know, I think they've talked themselves into a position where they feel that they're not personally responsible for amping up the sales of OxyContin and also spreading the word that OxyContin was an appropriate drug in lots and lots of cases where I think medical experts now agree that it wasn't appropriate. It wasn't anything like appropriate, and it was very dangerous.

CHANG: Right.

WALTERS: It's hard to know how much of this is just legal wrangling. You know? I mean, you can't be fighting a lawsuit and at the same time sort of saying, like - oh, wow, I feel really bad about this. And they, of course, vehemently deny all wrongdoing in the legal sphere and have been fighting these cases. But you make a settlement to sort something out, to stop something dragging out and maybe to stop a lot of the evidence coming out in court. That might be one tactic. It's just a way to make this go away.

CHANG: Joanna Walters is a news editor and reporter for the Guardian in the U.S. She joined us from New York. Thanks so much for joining us today.

WALTERS: Oh, my pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.