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Following years of pressure by students and the drug advocacy group P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now), New York University’s Langone Medical Center will remove the Sackler name from its Graduate Biomedical Institute. The move comes a day after the Justice Department’s announcement that Purdue Pharma, the company founded by members of the Sackler family, has pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges for its role in the opioid epidemic.
“Given the Sackler family’s association with Purdue Pharma and its role in encouraging opioid overuse, we view continuing to use the Sackler name as inconsistent with our institution’s values and incompatible with our mission, which is dedicated to patient care, education, and research to improve human health,” an NYU spokesperson told Hyperallergic.
P.A.I.N., founded by artist Nan Goldin, joined a group of NYU medical students on June 1, 2018, for a panel the students organized at the university. It was followed by a march from the Langone Medical Center to Bellevue Hospital that sought to call attention to the Sacklers’ financial influence on the school. Later that summer, they headed to Harvard Art Museums with Harvard and NYU medical students to protest the Sackler name at that institution, staging one of P.A.I.N.’s famous “die-in” performances.
“Until 8 AM this morning, I was a student at the Sackler Institute,” Paul Frazel, a PhD graduate student at the NYU School of Medicine and one of the protests’ organizers, told Hyperallergic. “That is a terrible name to have associated with getting a science degree. They lied about science and hurt people. It’s exciting to not have to worry about that kind of rock being attached to my personal PhD that I’ll get in a few years.”
Frazel added that while the name removal is “a big symbolic victory,” he and his peers hope that NYU will follow up with actionable measures, like assigning funds to study opioid addiction and help treat current drug users. They are also calling on the school to publicly acknowledge its deeper connections to the Sackler name: members of the family who were trained in medicine at NYU in the 1960s were responsible for the overprescribing of the anti-anxiety medication Valium.
In a statement to Hyperallergic, P.A.I.N. said it was “vindicated” by NYU’s recent decision to take down the name.
“This could not have happened without the efforts of medical students and activists. We joined their first public action in 2018, which the institution tried to stop. But — at the risk of their own future careers — the students refused to be silenced,” said the group.
Daniel S. Connolly, an attorney for members of the Sackler family, sent the following statement to Hyperallergic: “As soon as Purdue documents are released they will show the company’s history and that members of the Sackler family who served on the board of directors always acted ethically and lawfully, so it is disappointing that NYU is rushing to judgment.”
Purdue is accused of propagating the opioid crisis by deceptively marketing and encouraging overprescribing of its products, particularly the highly addictive drug OxyContin. Faced with thousands of lawsuits from states, tribes, and cities, the company entered bankruptcy protection last year.
A portion of the $8.3 billion settlement reached this week will go to states and localities to help them deal with the opioid epidemic, which has killed more than 450,000 Americans in the last two decades. But critics say the settlement is too lenient and does not hold individual Sacklers accountable.
As part of the deal, members of the Sackler family will pay $225 million in civil penalties, less than 2% of their estimated $13 billion net worth. Further, the company’s bankruptcy protection will likely protect it from paying anything close to the full $8 billion negotiated, reports the New York Times.
Purdue previously pleaded guilty to criminal charges for misleading doctors, patients, and governments about its products in 2007, when it paid $600 million in penalties.
“This news is nothing to celebrate,” P.A.I.N. said in regards to the deal. “The DOJ settlement with the Sacklers and Purdue is not a win — it’s a spin. The crimes have been laid out, but no one has been indicted. Headlines have reported an $8 billion settlement, when in reality, the Sacklers have only been fined $225 million.”
The group also criticized Purdue’s proposal that the company become a public benefit corporation, a model that would allow proceeds from the sale of OxyContin and overdose-reversing medications to fund state and local opioid abatement programs.
“If Purdue is made into a so-called ‘public trust,’ those they’ve harmed would be forced to be complicit in profiting off the future sales of OxyContin, the very drug that ignited this epidemic,” P.AI.N. said.
NYU Langone agreed to stop taking money from the Sacklers in June 2019. But Frazel said he and his peers were surprised it took NYU this long to remove the Sackler name, which was stamped on everything from university swag to lanyards and even made its way to email communications between the school and the students, who were casually referred to as “Sacklers.”
“When we finally pinned down a meeting with the development office, we were told the Sacklers had only given $1 million between 1980 and 1990, and that was the gift behind the naming of the institute,” Frazel told Hyperallergic. “It was so surprising to us. They gave much more money elsewhere — why did school take so long after what seemed like a measly gift?”
Some institutions have heeded the call of anti-opioid activists to dissociate from the family, but NYU is only the second university to denounce the Sackler title. In June 2019, Tufts University in Boston removed the Sackler name from five of its facilities and programs. The Louvre Museum in Paris wiped the name from its walls and website shortly thereafter. Despite pressure, Harvard has not yet changed the name of its Arthur M. Sackler Museum.
“Our direct actions have pushed most museums and universities to refuse Sackler funding, but these institutions have resumed business as usual while opioid overdose rates surge amidst the COVID-19 pandemic,” P.A.I.N. said. “The stakes have never been higher — P.A.I.N. will continue to demand the removal of the Sackler name from all museums and institutions worldwide.”