Thursday afternoon, President Trump said the opioid epidemic in the U.S. is the “worst drug crisis in American history” in a speech declaring it a public health emergency.
“As Americans, we cannot allow this to continue,” Trump said. “It is time to liberate our communities from the scourge. We can be the generation that ends the opioid epidemic.”
In declaring the opioid crisis a public health emergency, the federal government will waive some regulations, give states more flexibility in how they use federal funds, and will expand the use of telemedicine treatment, according to senior administration officials.
Trump stopped short of declaring a more sweeping national state of emergency which would have given states funds from the federal Disaster Relief Fund, and drew criticism from public health advocates and Democratic lawmakers who questioned the President’s commitment to the crisis as he made no immediate request to Congress for emergency funding.
“America is hemorrhaging lives by the day because of the opioid epidemic, but President Trump offered the country a Band-Aid when we need a tourniquet,” Sen. Edward J. Market (D-Mass.) said. “Today’s announcement is nothing more than a dog-and-pony show in an attempt to demonstrate the Trump administration is not ignoring this crisis.”
The opioid crisis is killing more than 100 people each day, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, claimed more than 53,000 people in 2016. That’s a higher death toll than guns, car crashes, and HIV/AIDS have ever killed in a year, and higher than all U.S. military casualties in the Vietnam and Iraq wars combined according Vox.
But while opioid pain killers like OxyContin kill tens of thousands per year, the family that owns the company that makes the drug rakes in billions in profits.
According to an expose from Esquire, the Sackler family has donated to the world’s most prestigious and well-endowed institutions. The Sackler family name is a prominent one in higher education, with Sackler institutes at Cornell, Columbia, McGill, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Sussex, and King’s College London, to name a few. There are also Sackler Wings at some of the world’s most famous museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, and the Royal Academy, and Sackler galleries at the likes of the Smithsonian, the Serpentine, and Oxford’s Ashmolean.
Members of the family, legendary in museum circles for their pursuit of naming rights, have also underwritten projects of a more modest caliber—a Sackler Staircase at Berlin’s Jewish Museum; a Sackler Escalator at the Tate Modern; a Sackler Crossing in Kew Gardens. A popular species of pink rose is named after a Sackler. So is an asteroid.
But for all of their high-profile philanthropic work, and despite the fact that the Sackler name is everywhere, the Sacklers themselves are rarely seen and remain somewhat a mystery.
The billionaire descendants of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler, two psychiatrist brothers from Brooklyn, have homes from the Hamptons to New York to London, to Utah, and their wealth was pegged at a conservative $14 billion—shared among 20 heirs—by Forbes in 2015.
Where does that $14 billion fortune come from? Oxycontin, the painkiller that many public-health experts site as one of the most dangerous products ever sold on a mass scale.
The drug was brought to mass market in 1996 by Purdue Pharma, the American branch of the Sacklers’ pharmaceutical empire. Since then, more than 200,000 Americans have died from overdoses of the drug and other prescription pain killers. And while dozens of other painkillers have flooded the market over the last few decades, Purdue Pharma was the first to achieve dominant share of the long-acting opioids market, accounting for more than half of prescriptions by 2001.
In July, President Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis—the special commission led by New Jersey governor Chris Christie—stated that opioids were killing 142 Americans every day, a number described as “September 11th every three weeks.”
And while tobacco remains—by a long-shot—America’s most lethal mass-market product, with 480,000 deaths, tobacco hasn’t generated a family fortune for a single product that even comes close to the Sacklers’ haul from Oxycontin. The same is true for cars and firearms as well.
Given all this, it’s no surprise that the Sacklers have kept their family name off the product. “The Fords, Hewletts, Packards, Johnsons—all those families put their name on their product because they were proud,” said Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine. “The Sacklers have hidden their connection to their product. They don’t call it ‘Sackler Pharma.’ They don’t call their pills ‘Sackler pills.’ And when they’re questioned, they say, ‘Well, it’s a privately held firm, we’re a family, we like to keep our privacy, you understand.’”
And it’s no wonder why.
For Esquire’s full expose on the Sacklers, click here.