Empire Of Pain: The Secret History Of The Sackler Dynasty
By Patrick Radden Keefe
560 pp. Doubleday. $32.
In “Say Nothing,” Patrick Radden Keefe’s look into that period of bitter conflict in Northern Ireland from 1968-1998 known today as The Troubles, it’s hard to say that any of the major players were truly “evil.” Instead, you come away feeling that everyone involved was culpable to some degree.
In “Empire of Pain,” by contrast, evil exists and it has a name — Sackler.
You may already know of the Sackler family, who Forbes estimated in December 2020 to have a net worth of $10.8 billion — likely an underestimate, as the family almost certainly has unreported income stashed in offshore accounts.
John Oliver did a blistering segment on the Sacklers in 2019 in his brilliant late-night show “Last Week Tonight” and his team was even responsible for putting up a website called the Sackler Gallery featuring famous actors reading unsealed documents from deposition hearings for the family because, in Oliver’s words, “they love having their name on fucking galleries.”
Through their company, Purdue Pharma, the Sacklers are responsible for the infamous opioid OxyContin — and the hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths that have come with it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta has rightly labeled these opioid-related deaths an “epidemic” and, in 2019, “2,600 lawsuits from 49 states and various territories of the U.S.” were filed against the company.
Perdue, under the express orders of the Sackler clan, marketed OxyContin as a cure-all for any sort of pain and assured doctors and patients that the addiction rate was “less than one percent.”
Lies. In their race to generate profits as quickly as possible, the Sacklers ignored testimonials from doctors, patients, and the company’s own sales force that the drug was in fact highly addictive and causing overdose deaths. The warning signs came as early as 1997, shortly after the drug first went on the market. But the sales — and the deaths — only ramped up from there. The Sacklers? They just didn’t care.
When links between the rise in overdose deaths and the mass prescribing of OxyContin shed new light on the company, the Sacklers held firm — casting the blame not on the company but on “abusers.”
“We have to hammer on abusers in every way possible,” Richard Sackler wrote in an email in 2001, when he was president of Purdue Pharma. “They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”
One would think that the mere knowledge that your drug is causing a huge upsurge in deaths and addiction across the country would be enough to perhaps take it off the market, or at least stop marketing it so heavily, but the Sacklers didn’t think so. Instead, they doubled down on the pledge Richard Sackler had made following the release of the drug.
“The launch of OxyContin tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition. The prescription blizzard will be so deep, dense, and white.”
If you view your competition as human beings addicted to your product, then Richard Sackler was certainly right — it did bury them.
When a federal prosecutor reported in 2001 that OxyContin had been responsible for 59 overdose deaths in just one single state, Kentucky, the Sacklers showed all the empathy expected of a family of psychopaths.
“This is not too bad,” Richard Sackler wrote to company officials. “It could have been far worse.”
As you can see, the Sacklers make the characters in “Succession” look like Peace Corps volunteers.
And while Richard Sackler has the most disgusting quotes — his total lack of empathy is matched only by his utter naivety at the idea that his comments could ever become public — he’s by no means the only bad apple on the Sackler tree.
It was difficult while reading “Empire of Pain” to actually determine which family member is the worst. Madeleine Sackler makes my blood boil in a totally different way.
The daughter of Jonathan Sackler, the former director of Perdue, Madeleine ostensibly has nothing to do with the family business and is instead a filmmaker who likes to tackle important topics, like mass incarceration in the American prison system.
However, when confronted with questions about her family’s connection to a drug that has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, Madeleine has repeatedly refused to talk about it or take any responsibility at all. Yes, she’s worth many millions of dollars thanks to her family’s drug dealing and has built a career making “social justice” movies (oh, the irony) with that money, but no, it’s not her fault … blood money is accepted currency too.
Funny how her site’s about me page mentions nothing about the family business.
If I’ve spent this entire review talking more about the Sacklers than about Patrick Radden Keefe’s spectacular book about them, it’s because I still haven’t gotten over my outrage — outrage at how the family has largely gotten away with it and been allowed to keep their billions while families across the country are suffering the loss of loved ones due to their product.
Patrick Radden Keefe has written an absolutely riveting bildungsroman here, telling the story of the family going all the way back to the arrival of Isaac Sackler, a Jewish immigrant from Galicia — now Ukraine — to the United States. The first third of the book is centered around Isaac’s son, Arthur, the most driven of the three Sackler brothers. It’s like “The Godfather Part II,” except Robert De Niro’s Vito Corleone was an eminently more honorable figure than anyone here — that whole mafia business aside.
The bigger problem “Empire of Pain” exposes is that of a capitalistic society run totally amok, without any sort of meaningful regulations or consequences. Patrick Radden Keefe shows how The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was and still is in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry, which has a history of offering kickbacks to government officials in exchange for approval.
In 2020, the Trump Justice Department was even pursuing an investigation into the Sacklers but then, just weeks before the presidential election, the case was abruptly wrapped up without charges being pursued against the family. All this reportedly at the behest of an unnamed individual high up in the Trump administration. Because of course.
“Empire of Pain” is the perfect companion piece to the equally bloodcurdling Romanian documentary “Collective” — nominated for Best Documentary and Best International Film at this year’s Academy Awards.
That film’s tagline is just as apt when talking about the US government’s failure to regulate and prosecute the Sacklers and companies like theirs as it is about corruption in the Romanian government:
When government fails, we all pay the price.