Empire of Pain

A wonderful tale of a chilling saga that tracks the multi-generational story of the Sackler family, starting with three brothers, Arthur, Raymond and Mortimer, who founded and acquired a group of businesses including Purdue Pharma, the company that created and sells OxyContin – basically, oxycodone – a close relative to heroin. The Sacklers are largely responsible for initiating the opioid crisis in the US that has spread to other countries as well. 

Arthur Sackler began in advertising, working to make Pfizer a household name by getting prominent doctors to hawk their pill as the best. The methods he put in place are commonplace today – the disturbing nexus between advertising, pharmaceutical sales, greed and money.

The family worked hard to ensure that their name became synonymous with philanthropy but was not directly associated with their actual businesses. This obfuscation is at the heart of everything they do. They marketed OxyContin as a painkiller for not just serious pain like cancer, but for “non-malignant” pain and general use, completely failing to publicise the fact that the drug was addictive.

Even the artist, Nan Goldin, became addicted . After rehab, she takes a stand, staging protests with fellow artists and activists at the Sackler Enclave at the Met. Her activism is the seed that got the art and educational institutions to take the Sackler name off their doors and stop accepting their donations.

The book spans rise in sales of OxyContin, the growth of the family’s wealth, the fall of millions of Americans into drug addiction, the revolving doors between FDA officials who should have put the brakes this and the executives at drug companies, how states slowly came together to take the Sacklers to court and how the family has denied all culpability and spared no expense in defending themselves. 

Keefe makes you feel like you’re there in the room as events unfold. He manages timelines beautifully so that even though we’re going back and forth across generations, characters and aspects of this subject, you always know exactly where you are in the story. It’s an eye-opening, thorough and absorbing read.

Currently, the Sacklers look like they will get away with all of this. 

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