Empire of Pain: Patrick Radden Keefe’s Dive Into the Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty

Now widely associated with opioid epidemic, one family’s rise to become among the wealthiest in America remained a mystery for years. Having donated millions to some of the world’s most prestigious museums and universities, the Sacklers were well known as philanthropists. However, as Patrick Radden Keefe tells us from his new book, “Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty,” there is more to the tale of this notorious empire.

Keefe’s extensive research traces back to Dr. Arthur Sackler, the patriarch of the Sackler family who, in the 1940s, had made his name treating mental illness. Arthur imagined a day where a mere pill could treat psychosis or schizophrenia, an idea that fueled his fascination with pharmaceutical innovations. In addition, he showed an interest in the world of advertising and by the 1960s Arthur was marketing and selling early tranquilizers in a way that paved the way for Purdue. Having used tactics that downplayed the side effects of a drug, while overplaying the benefits, Arthur won over doctors and patients alike. Despite the deception and tricks, many have credited Arthur as the father of pharmaceutical advertising.

In the meantime, Raymond and Mortimer Sackler, brothers to Arthur, acquired a small medicine-patent company which would one day be the pharmaceutical giant we know today as Purdue Pharma. Under the new ownership, the company did exceptionally well and grew the pharmaceutical industry at a rapid rate after following a vertically integrated model.

This success would not go unnoticed. In the early 1960s, a Tennessee senator by the name of Estes Kefauver would chair a subcommittee looking into the pharmaceutical industry. His previous committee investigation into the mafia caused him to be especially intrigued by the Sacklers.

“The Sackler empire is a completely integrated operation in that it can devise a new drug in its drug development enterprise, have the drug clinically tested and secure favorable reports on the drug from various hospitals with which they have connections, conceive the advertising approach and prepare the actual advertising copy with which to promote the drug, have the clinical articles as well as advertising copy published in their own medical journals, [and] prepare and plant articles in newspapers and magazines,” read a memo prepared by senator Kefauver’s staff.

Ultimately, Arthur Sackler would pass in 1987, just years before Purdue Pharma would begin manufacturing OxyContin, however the legacy of his work would live on. Physicians in the early 1990s were rather skeptical to initially prescribe OxyContin, a drug that was marketed as extremely effective and aggressive. In response, Purdue would begin their deceptive strategy and launch an series of wildly misleading claims that severely downplayed the strength of the drug.

‘Empire of Pain’ continues to follow the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma through the immense fortune they accumulated and the various legal battles that have ensued in efforts to hold the company, and the family behind it, accountable for their role in driving the opioid crisis.

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