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Elizabeth A. Sackler, a prominent cultural philanthropist whose name adorns many museum walls, has thrown her support behind artist Nan Goldin’s campaign against another branch of the Sackler family that has profited enormously from the opioid epidemic through its company, Purdue Pharma.
“The opioid epidemic is a national crisis and Purdue Pharma’s role in it is morally abhorrent to me,” Sackler said in a statement sent to Hyperallergic. “I admire Nan Goldin’s commitment to take action and her courage to tell her story. I stand in solidarity with artists and thinkers whose work and voices must be heard.”
Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, Elizabeth Sackler’s uncles, were the principal owners of Purdue Pharma in 1995, when the company released the prescription painkiller OxyContin onto the market. The company pleaded guilty in 2007 to a federal charge that it had mislabeled the drug and mislead the public about its addictive properties, agreeing to pay an unprecedented $600 million fine. Nevertheless, sales of the drug showed no signs of slowing, and as of 2016 Purdue Pharma had made more than $31 billion from sales of OxyContin. Foundations run by Mortimer and Raymond Sackler’s side of the family have given millions of dollars to cultural institutions in the US, UK, and Europe, including the the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation, the Metropolitan Museum, the Dia Arts Foundation, the Louvre, and the Victoria & Albert Museum.
“My father, Arthur M. Sackler, died in 1987, before OxyContin existed and his one-third option in Purdue Frederick was sold by his estate to his brothers a few months later,” Elizabeth Sackler added. “None of his descendants have ever owned a share of Purdue stock nor benefitted in any way from it or the sale of OxyContin. I stand with all angry voices against abuse of power that harms or compromises any and all lives.”
In an article earlier this month, Goldin revealed her years-long struggle with OxyContin addiction, which she detailed at greater length in an interview with the New York Times published today. Originally prescribed three pills per day for pain relief related to a surgery, she wrote that she “got addicted overnight” and her daily consumption eventually ballooned to 18 pills per day. When she was no longer able to afford OxyContin, she says she snorted another pain relief drug, fentanyl, and overdosed. While Goldin has been clean since January 2017 according to her article, many do not survive: between 1999 and 2016 there were some 200,000 opioid-related deaths; in 2015 alone, more than 20,000 people died of prescription pain relief drug overdoses in the US. In October 2017, President Trump declared opioid addiction a national public health emergency.
“We are deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis, and we would welcome an opportunity to sit down with Ms. Goldin to discuss her ideas,” Robert Josephson, a spokesperson for Purdue Pharma, told Hyperallergic. “For more than 15 years, this company has supported many of the initiatives she is advocating, which includes collaborating with law enforcement, funding state prescription drug monitoring programs and enhancing their interoperability, and distributing the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain.” Josephson added that the company recently launched programs to educate teenagers about the dangers of opioids and funds grants that help provide law enforcement agencies with naloxone, an emergency medication that can rapidly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. On its website, Purdue Pharma has further outlined some of the initiatives it has launched in response to the opioid crisis.
As of this writing, more than 5,500 people have signed Goldin’s petition calling on Purdue Pharma to respond to the opioid crisis, including funding rehab centers and treatment programs, educating the public and doctors about the risks of OxyContin, and advertising the risks associated with the drug more prominently.