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Shame on Sackler: How P.A.I.N. is making moves to shun big pharma

Johnson & Johnson will begin to deliver a three-week defense in their Oklahoma civil trial concerning their involvement in the opioid epidemic. This historic trial comes in the wake of the increasingly volatile evolution concerning Big Pharma’s involvement (or, some may argue, orchestration) of the opioid epidemic.

Interestingly enough, the protestors at the front lines of advocating for pharmaceutical responsibility are artists who are targeting the most important institutions of their field.

Let’s start at the beginning.

The Sackler family, Purdue Pharma, and the Opioid Crisis

The Opioid Epidemic began in the 1990s. Back then pharmaceutical companies pushed doctors worried about their patient’s pain towards opioids by using misleading marketing that underplayed the risks of opioid use and exaggerated its benefits. This would quickly lead to Americans becoming the front running consumers of opioids.

In 2007 Purdue Pharma plead guilting in a 634.5 million dollar lawsuit for advertising the opioid OxyContin as safer and less addictive than other opioids. U.S. Attorney John Brownlee summarized:

“Purdue … acknowledged that it illegally marketed and promoted OxyContin by falsely claiming that OxyContin was less addictive, less subject to abuse and diversion, and less likely to cause withdrawal symptoms than other pain medications – all in an effort to maximize its profits,”

Purdue Pharma is a private pharmaceutical company principally owned by the descendants of Mortimer and Raymond Sackler.

The former chairman and president of Purdue, Richard Sackler, is just about as close as you can get to a real-life Bond villain without shaving your head and adopting a Russian accent. He has done nearly everything he can to distance himself from being illustrated as the orchestrator of the opioid crisis. However, he has emerged as one of its leading boogeymen.

Sackler has kept his face out of the press and remains to be one of the most elusive yet most infamous figures in the medical field. Recently, his presence has been limited to a 2015 deposition in which it was revealed that he had said in a 1999 email:

“You won’t believe how committed I am to make OxyContin a huge success. It is almost that I have dedicated my life to it.”

The details of the 2015 deposition were published in Feb. by STAT and ProPublica, you can read the transcript itself as well as a summary of the deposition here.

These files are horrific. Furthermore, it was a calculated move that Sackler did not allow the video of the deposition to be released, as reporters simply reading a transcription of a deposition is significantly less engaging than a recording of the deposition itself.

Luckily, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver contacted Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad), Michael Keaton (Batman), Michael K. Williams (The Wire), and Richard Kind (Inside Out) to perform excerpts from the 2015 deposition, and they totally delivered.

Protests in NYC lead to action

The fight to remove the Sackler signature from cultural and educational institutions across the world began in March, in when Britain’s National Portrait Gallery revealed that had made a “joint decision” with the Sackler family to cancel a pre-planned 1.3 million dollar donation from the family.


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Nan Goldin, a celebrated photographer and former addict, has started the foundation P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) to advocate for the removal of the Sackler’s namesake from museums and universities alike.

P.A.I.N demands that Purdue Pharma, Mundipharma and Sackler pharmaceutical companies worldwide donate all funds to programs helping rehabilitate the communities and families destroyed by the opioid epidemic.

Goldin is most known for her portraits that serve as a type of visual autobiography. Her work documents both herself and her friends in the LGBTQ, heroin-addicted subcultures. Her pieces are intimate portrayals of those closest to her and the communities they are involved with.


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Therefore, with the political nature of her work, it should come as so surprise that Goldin organized P.A.I.N to protest the Sackler family’s involvement in the opioid epidemic by staging die-ins and demonstrations at artistic institutions that carry the family’s name.

The protests began at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in May of 2018 in the Sackler wing. Demonstrators brought banners reading “Fund Rehab” and “Shame on Sackler” and threw fake pill bottles into the wing’s iconic reflective pool. The Met said it is suspending donations from the family but will not remove their name from the wing.

In March, P.A.I.N staged another protest at the Guggenheim, in which they threw slips of paper resembling opioid prescription slips into the central rotunda of the famous artistic landmark as well as held up prescription bottles.

This was in an effort to advocate for the renaming of the Guggenheim’s Sackler Education Center as well as to demand that the institution stop receiving donations from the family.


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The protest worked somewhat, and the Guggenheim also announced it would no longer “accept gifts” from the Sackler family nearly a month later. The Tate Modern and the Museum of Natural History made similar statements.

It is a little hard to wrap your head around the idea that an institution refusing money from a private entity has the capability to hurt that entity in the first place. John Oliver put the reason why deplatforming in this manner is important in cases such as the Sackler family.

“I know that, as punishments go, getting to keep 1.3 million dollars doesn’t sound all that fucking bad. But keep in mind that these people have infinite money and seem to enjoy nothing more than using it to purchase social status. So, not getting to put their names on things might be a real punishment for them. But I would argue that that should only be half of it, the other half is having to put their name on the opioid crisis they fought so hard to distance themselves from.”

In their first European protest, P.A.I.N staged a demonstration at the Louvre on Monday, carrying banners that read: “Take down the Sackler name” (in reference to their 12 Sackler rooms) and performing another die-in. The Louvre has yet to comment directly upon the matter.


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P.A.I.N. has set up a petition demanding that Purdue and the greater Sackler family fund rehabilitation and education progress to directly address, and begin to mend, the crisis.