Then, early this year, the University of Washington quietly scrubbed its website of any connection to the Sackler family, whose multibillion-dollar company is credited with the advent of OxyContin, the controversial painkiller now under fire for its role in the opioid crisis.
The university decided to end its Sackler postdoctoral program in fall 2017, said UW spokesperson Victor Balta, “following media reports and a lawsuit by the State of Washington connecting the current opioid epidemic to marketing practices of the drug OxyContin by Purdue Pharma.”
The program has not reached its end just yet, however. One final participant was awarded funding in fall 2017 and continues to work toward completion of the postdoc in March 2020.
But the person's work is not being advertised. Where the UW once had a webpage devoted to the Sackler program, there is now only a mostly blank page. It was taken down last January and lives on only in internet archives.
“References to the program on the UW website have been removed, and it will end upon completion of work by the final postdoc to receive the award,” said Balta.
The decision comes as institutions across the world struggle with the ethics of accepting money from the famously philanthropic Sacklers. As thousands of people die from opioid overdoses in the United States, some institutions have faced calls to refuse Sackler donations, which are increasingly painted as blood money. In February, protestors tossed fake prescription slips down the halls of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. In early 2018, the editorial board of Harvard’s newspaper, the Crimson, called on the university to consider divesting.
The University of Washington had not faced such visible protest, in part because of the relatively small size of the program, which was overseen by UW professor Stan Froehner.
Since 2010, when the biophysics program began, 21 postdoctoral scholars have been funded through the program, which, according to the now-defunct website, “enables the brightest early career scientists to combine the experimental and computational expertise of multiple laboratories to promote progress in biophysics research.”
In that period, the Sacklers made three gifts totaling about $1.5 million, said Balta. Jon Sackler made one additional gift of $50,000 in 2010 to support UW’s Center on Reinventing Public Education.
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Yet the Sackler’s company has come under fire in Washington state. Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes both filed lawsuits against Purdue and others in 2017. “Purdue Pharma ignored the devastating consequences of its opioids and profited from its massive deception,” Ferguson said in 2017, when he filed the state’s suit.
Purdue Pharma catapulted OxyContin into the market in the late 1990s with the backing of a massive public relations campaign to convince doctors of its safety and effectiveness. But proliferation of the drug has been blamed as a large contributor to the opioid crisis, which has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans to date.
The mounting cases against Purdue Pharma echo the landmark lawsuits against big tobacco companies in the 1990s. Several states across the country allege that the Sacklers and their company knew their cash-cow drug was addictive, but buried the knowledge and cast frequent and prolonged users as abusers.
As a result, Purdue Pharma should have to pay for the damage done by the opioid crisis, lawsuits say.
In 2007, three Purdue executives pleaded guilty to charges of misleading the public, resulting in a $600 million payout from the company.
But although the company was founded in 1952 by brothers Raymond, Mortimer and Arthur Sackler, the waves of litigation against Purdue Pharma mostly have not reached the Sackler family. The company has sought to keep the family’s involvement at arm’s length, a tactic that has mostly shielded them. Neither lawsuit from Ferguson or Holmes mentions the Sacklers.
The shield may be crumbling, however. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, in a court filing in January (the same time UW took down its website), cited previously unreleased documents in an effort to tie the Sacklers directly to the marketing of OxyContin. In one 2001 email, Richard, son of Raymond and president of Purdue at the time, wrote, “We have to hammer on abusers in every way possible. They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”
The case against the Sacklers has posed a dilemma for major institutions across the country. As one of the country's richest families — valued at $14 billion by Forbes — members have given large amounts of money to dozens of art museums and medical institutions.
Little has been made of the UW’s decision to stop the Sackler Scholars program. When contacted, two UW professors listed as involved on the website were unaware it had stopped. There are no announcements to speak of on the university’s website.
When the final postdoc finishes with the program, the break will be clean. “The UW has no endowed funds from the Sacklers; all donated funds were immediately expendable,” Balta said.