In little over a week, a number of nonprofit institutions—including the National Portrait Gallery in London, London’s Tate Modern, and New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—have turned down donations from the Sackler family because the Sacklers earned much of their wealth through the production and sale of OxyContin, a drug produced and marketed by the family-owned firm Purdue Pharma. OxyContin is widely seen as having ignited an epidemic that has led to the opioid overdose deaths of hundreds of thousands.
In the case of the art museums, however, while the donations may have served to cleanse the reputation of the Sackler donors, the donations themselves did no damage. However, a lawsuit filed by the attorney general’s office in Massachusetts argues that the situation with Tufts University was quite different.
The 312-page complaint from the attorney general’s office includes the following passage:
In 1999, the Sackler family made a more targeted gift, establishing Tufts Masters of Science in Pain Research, Education, and Policy (“MSPREP Program”). Kathe Sackler co-presided over the decision to fund the MSPREP Program. Richard Sackler attended the launch symposium in Boston and paid Tufts hundreds of thousands of dollars. Purdue also sponsored the annual Sackler Lecture at Tufts on a topic in pain medicine. For many years, Richard took a seat on the board of the Tufts University School of Medicine.
The Sacklers got a lot for their money. The MSPREP Program bought Purdue name recognition, goodwill in the local and medical communities, and access to doctors at Massachusetts hospitals like Brigham and Women’s. Purdue got to control research on the treatment of pain coming out of a prominent and respected institution of learning. Staff told the Sacklers that Purdue employees regularly taught a Tufts seminar about opioids in Massachusetts as part of the MSPREP Program. Staff sent the Sacklers a report showing that Tufts and its affiliated teaching hospital helped Purdue develop a publication for patients entitled, “Taking Control of Your Pain.” The MSPREP Program was such a success for Purdue’s business that the company considered it a model for influencing teaching hospitals and medical schools.
Now Tufts has ordered its own investigation. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Neil Gluckman reports that university president Anthony Monaco has “asked a former US attorney, Donald K. Stern, to review a program on pain research that Purdue Pharma executives helped start at Tufts.” In a message to the campus, Monaco acknowledges that the Massachusetts attorney general’s office “alleges that Purdue Pharma contributions to the Pain Research, Education and Policy Program (PREP) at Tufts University School of Medicine were part of an effort to legitimize the marketing of those drugs.” Monaco adds that, “These allegations are deeply troubling” and therefore “it is important to both our university and those who have suffered as a result of the opioid crisis to investigate these allegations thoroughly.”
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The action taken by Monaco follows considerable internal pressure at Tufts. An editorial in the Tufts Daily, the student newspaper, that came out shortly after the release of the attorney general’s complaint was nothing if not scathing:
The Sackler family and Purdue Pharma used Tufts University as a staging ground for promoting their mainstay opioid painkiller OxyContin … Documentation from a lawsuit brought against Purdue this month by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey confirmed what many suspected—the Sacklers used the wealth of their pharmaceutical empire to push pro-opioid messaging through Tufts’ Sackler Graduate School of Biomedical Science starting in the late 1990s to as recently as last year.
The opioid crisis was engineered in our own backyard…Purdue staff lectured Sackler students at courses on opioid policy, hosted events to encourage their widespread use, and developed research protocols and publications on pain management for the school. Tufts even promoted a Purdue employee to be an adjunct professor in 2011, four years after Purdue pleaded guilty to intentionally misleading doctors and patients about OxyContin.
The editorial concluded that “Tufts has crossed a line past complicity” and “must help remedy the crisis it helped create.”
As Andrew Joseph writes in Stat, “The Massachusetts lawsuit alleges that Purdue and the Sacklers didn’t just donate to Tufts—they got something in return.” Joseph adds that Stern’s investigation follows an internal investigation launched after the lawsuit was filed and will examine “Tufts programs that received funding from the Sacklers, their family foundations, and Purdue.”—Steve Dubb