A recent court ling reveals that the Sackler family, a major source of donations to Oxford University and owners of Purdue Pharma LP, were more involved than had been previously assumed in deceiving the public about the side effects of the opioid painkiller OxyContin.

The memorandum was led as part of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s ongoing lawsuit against the company and 17 associated individuals, including 8 members of the Sackler family.

The court ruling states: “They [the 8 Sackler family members] directed deceptive sales and marketing practices deep within Purdue, sending hundreds of orders to executives and line employees.

“From the money that Purdue collected selling opioids, they paid themselves and their family billions of dollars.”

Since 1991, the University has received over £11 million in donations from the Sacklers’ trusts and from the family themselves. Their donations have gone towards erecting the Bodleian Sackler Library and towards funding the Sackler Keeper of Antiquities at the Ash- molean.

The Sacklers also support a University lecturer and a teaching fellowship in Earth Sciences, and the family’s contributions have facilitated projects in paediatrics and neuroscience.

The memorandum suggests the Sacklers to be directly involved in developing a strong marketing strategy for OxyContin and its other opioids, repeatedly pushing for the prescrip- tion of higher doses for longer periods of time.

The marketing campaign targeted customers for whom opioid use was accompanied by great risk, such as the elderly and patients who had not previously been on opioids, without warning them of the additional risk of drug interactions, addiction, and overdose, the court ling suggests.

The suit also asserts that the Sacklers were aware of Purdue’s repeated failure to notify authorities of “pill mills” and reports on the illegal sale and distribution of OxyContin. According to the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, overdoses from prescription opioids accounted for 218,000 deaths from 1999 to 2017 nationwide.

When asked whether Oxford University will review its policy on accepting donations, and whether they will accept donations from the Sacklers in the future, a University spokes- person said: “All major prospective donors are carefully considered by the University’s Committee to Review Donations under the University’s guidelines for acceptance.

“The Committee considers the sources of an individual’s or organisation’s wealth and may reconsider a donor in the light of new information. The University monitors significant developments in the public domain and the Committee considers donors when potential donations are brought to their attention.”

Richard Sackler, who served as Purdue Pharma’s president from 1999 to 2002, is characterised by the Massachusetts Attorney General as the main driving force behind the OxyContin campaign.

It is asserted in the suit that in 1997 staff informed Richard Sackler that selling OxyContin as a “non-narcotic” in certain markets would provide “a vast increase of the market potential”, bypassing safeguards intending to protect patients from addictive drugs.

The idea faced opposition from Richard Kaiko, the inventor of OxyContin. Noting that products like OxyContin were among the most widely abused opioids in the US, he wrote: “If OxyContin is uncontrolled, it is highly likely that it will eventually be abused.”

Richard Sackler allegedly responded: “How substantially would it improve your sales?”

Purdue Pharma wrote in a statement: “[T]he Attorney General has cherry-picked from among tens of millions of emails and other business documents produced by Purdue. The complaint is littered with biased and inaccurate characterizations of these documents and individual defendants, often highlighting potential courses of action that were ultimately rejected by the company.”

A spokesperson for The Sackler Trust and The Dr Mortimer And Theresa Sackler Founda- tion said: “We support a range of educational, medical, scientific, cultural and community organisations. It is a privilege to be able to support such vital work and we continue to do so.”

Cherwell has contacted the Sackler family for comment.


For Cherwell, maintaining editorial independence is vital. We are run entirely by and for students. To ensure independence, we receive no funding from the University and are reliant on obtaining other income, such as advertisements. Due to the current global situation, such sources are being limited significantly and we anticipate a tough time ahead – for us and fellow student journalists across the country.

So, if you can, please consider donating. We really appreciate any support you’re able to provide; it’ll all go towards helping with our running costs. Even if you can't support us monetarily, please consider sharing articles with friends, families, colleagues - it all helps!

Thank you!