WHITE PLAINS, NY — This morning, October 10, a cohort of enraged activists flanked a courthouse in Westchester County in anticipation of Purdue Pharma’s first Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection hearing, meant to resolve over 2,600 lawsuits against the drug manufacturer led by states, tribes, and municipal governments. Purdue is headed by the controversial Sackler family, who are themselves facing nearly two dozen lawsuits by state attorneys general.
If the bankruptcy filing is denied, the Sacklers have threatened to renege their promise to dole out $3 billion in personal funds over seven years as part of a proposed settlement to resolve the 2,600 lawsuits against Purdue. The overall settlement is valued at about $10 billion. The settlement does not require the family to make a statement of wrongdoing for their role in bolstering the opioid epidemic. They have been accused of encouraging aggressive and purposely misleading marketing of the prescription opioid OxyContin since it was first approved by the FDA in 1995.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 192 people die of drug overdose daily. “The number of drug overdose deaths has never been higher,” the CDC asserts, reporting that out of 70,237 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2017, 68% involved opioids.
The Sackler family has an estimated net worth of $13 billion, and many consider a $3 billion personal contribution insufficient in the grand scheme of the opioid epidemic. As part of the settlement, the New York Times reports, the Sacklers would forfeit ownership of Purdue and sell Mundipharma, their UK-based drug company, to contribute to the settlement. Purdue would be restructured into a public benefit trust, and its profits would fund the plaintiffs’ claims and be funneled into the research of addiction and development of overdose prevention medications.
For decades, the billionaire clan has used personal wealth to establish themselves as art patrons; dozens of prominent international art institutions bear the Sackler name thanks to hefty donations. In 2017, renowned photographer Nan Goldin founded PAIN Sackler, a drug policy advocacy organization that demands museums and universities to “remove Sackler signage and publicly refuse future funding from the Sacklers.”
On September 12, following the announcement of the tentative settlement the day prior, PAIN Sackler and Truth Pharm, a nonprofit advocating for policy change to improve treatment options, swarmed the Purdue Pharma headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut to protest the “fake settlement.”
In preparation of today’s bankruptcy hearing, PAIN Sackler wrote a call to action on Instagram, saying:
The Sacklers must NOT be protected by their company’s bankruptcy. Purdue may be out of money, but the Sacklers are still filthy, stinking RICH. Recent evidence shows they secretly transferred AT LEAST $13 BILLION from Purdue to their personal accounts. The legal settlement proposed by Purdue is NOT ENOUGH, and it’s because the Sacklers cleaned house before we got there.
This morning, about a dozen protesters from PAIN Sackler, accompanied by activists from Binghamton-based Truth Pharm, chanted “Shame on Sacklers!”
The activists hurled a blizzard of “blood money” in the air — mock one-dollar bills printed with the word “Oxy” and splattered with red paint — and spilled mock prescription bottles across the steps of the courthouse. They spread themselves across the cement for a 200-second die-in and moment of silence for the nearly 200 individuals who die daily from drug overdoses.
“They have more than enough money to help start treating this crisis,” Harry Cullen, an activist with PAIN Sackler, addressed the crowd. “That money belongs to the people who they have killed.”
“We need Purdue liquidated,” he continued. “We need their money to go immediately to harm reduction treatment. Every second it doesn’t is another second wasted […] We don’t have this time to spare.”
“We’re not going to stop until they personally face charges,” said Goldin.
In spite of what looks to be a weighty settlement, NBC reports that at least 20 state attorneys general who are suing Purdue reject these settlement conditions. “We support the AGs who have refused this fake settlement,” Goldin announced, “but we are concerned about where the money goes. They need to commit that the money is going to solutions. That it is going to the people that need it.”
Purdue requested the states’ lawsuits be blocked for 270 days while settlement details are worked out. Its lawyers say that the legal burden created by these lawsuits, which they estimate to be $5 million weekly, could “destroy hundreds of millions of dollars or more of value available for all claimants and for the public.”
The Sacklers “may be unwilling — or unable — to make the billions of dollars of contributions” currently promised in the settlement if these states’ lawsuits are allowed to continue, the lawyers say.
However, the Sacklers are not themselves filing for bankruptcy. “The Sacklers don’t want to file for bankruptcy because that would expose all their finances as well as the transactions they made with Purdue,” Melissa B. Jacoby, a bankruptcy law expert at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told the New York Times. “The Sacklers want the benefit of bankruptcy without the burdens of bankruptcy.”
After the protest, Goldin told Hyperallergic: “We’ve succeeded in shaming [the Sacklers]. Now, it’s most important to get the museums to take down their name — the names of a criminal family.”
PAIN’s call to action has seen measurable success. In 2019, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Guggenheim Museum, London’s National Gallery, Tate, Louvre, and American Museum of Natural History have all taken steps to distance their connections to the billionaire family.
“[The Sacklers have] put out this settlement that looks really good — it’s a PR settlement. It looks very benevolent and generous,” Goldin explained. “Billions are coming from the sale of OxyContin, which is the most cynical thing possible. […] To wipe out your debts with the very drug that ignited this crisis.”
“I think artists, in this day and age, can’t stay silent. They have to find a cause, they have to find their fight,” Goldin declared. “You can’t just stand by.”