Tufts responds to allegations filed by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts against Sackler, Purdue Pharma

The Arnold Wing of the Tufts University School of Medicine is pictured. (Via Wikimedia Commons / John Phelan)

Tufts responded to allegations submitted by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey in court documents filed against the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma on Jan. 31. This follows reports that Tufts’ relationship with Purdue Pharma influenced its schools, research and degree programs, according to a Jan. 15 memorandum filed by the Attorney General’s office in the Massachusetts Superior Court. These documents are part of a lawsuit brought against Purdue Pharma by the Commonwealth in 2018 wherein Massachusetts alleges that the Sacklers engineered the opioid epidemic and profited from it.

In a motion to dismiss by Purdue Pharma, dated March 1, the company asserted that the Commonwealth’s lawsuit targeted them by using sensational language and fabricated the link between Purdue Pharma and the crisis.

In an email to the Daily, Tufts’ Executive Director of Public Relations, Patrick Collins, reiterated the university’s commitment to a high scientific and ethical standard. Collins said the information revealed in the lawsuits against the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma was “deeply troubling.”

“We will be undertaking a review of Tufts’ connection with Purdue to ensure that we were provided accurate information, that we followed our conflict of interest guidelines and that we adhered to our principles of academic and research integrity,” Collins said. “Based on this review, we will determine if any changes need to be made moving forward.”

The Sacklers have come under increased scrutiny from Tufts students and alumni after a the New York Times reported on Jan. 31 that Richard Sackler, a former president of Purdue Pharma, had directed the company to incentivize the sale of high doses of OxyContin. Andrea Koenigsberg, who wrote an op-ed about the Sacklers last year, said she hopes that a now-clear connection between the Sackler family and OxyContin will bring renewed attention to the issue.

“Up until that point, I think people just … ignored it, generally. But once that came out, it couldn’t really be ignored anymore,” Koenigsberg, a Sackler Ph.D. candidate, said.

Nathan Foster (LA ’18), one of the alumni working on this issue, called the actions revealed in the Commonwealth’s allegations against the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma “disgusting and disturbing.” He added that similar information has been public since at least 2007.

“In 2007, Purdue was fined $600 million for doing exactly the same things that they are currently getting sued for again,” Foster said. “There was this whole pantomime around ‘Oh, that’s just the company — the Sackler family, who just happened to own the company, have no involvement in their business.’ I have to imagine that should have seemed transparently ridiculous back then, too.”

New information makes clear that the Sackler family played an active role in setting high drug prices, according to Foster. The family took $4 billion from Purdue after their initial fine, according to Foster.

Foster expressed concern that Richard Sackler actively advocated for high costs on opioids.

“Even [in 2007] it should have been clear to anybody who thought about it,” Foster said. “The fact that Tufts has such a strong presence in the medical community should mean that we’re working to fight diseases and we’re working to keep people healthy.”

Foster noted that his own involvement in this issue was inspired by the scale of the opioid crisis.

“Just being a Tufts alumnus and knowing our involvement in the opioid crisis made me feel like I wanted to do something,” Foster said. “I’ve been involved in issues around making Tufts governance more accountable, and the fact that donors to the university were able to control the curriculum of this school, were able to gain personal benefit from it just demonstrates the need for more democratic governance of the university.”

In its motion to dismiss, the company responded directly to allegations by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that the company was controlling research on pain treatment at Tufts. Instead, Purdue Pharma attributed such allegations to educational Purdue programs provided to Tufts Health Plan providers.

“Purdue presented a program called ‘The OxyContin Crisis’ as part of a broad effort by Purdue to address prescription medication abuse awareness and prevention with a number of different organizations and healthcare providers,” the motion reads. “Among the hundreds of programs Purdue supported across the country are programs in Massachusetts entitled ‘Tufts Health Care Institute Program on Opioid Risk Management’, ‘Safe and Effective Opioid Prescribing for Chronic Pain’ and ‘Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies and Opioid Drugs: What the Pharmacist Needs to Know.’ Purdue did not control the content of any of these presentations.”

The motion also highlights Purdue’s role in providing grants to the National Association of State Controlled Substance Authorities based in Massachusetts and to other charitable institutions for purposes unrelated to the opioid crisis. It emphasizes the inaccuracies in the Commonwealth’s amended complaint.

“If the Commonwealth had facts to support its narrative, it would have included them in the Amended Complaint,” the motion reads. “It is telling that the Attorney General’s office chose instead to resort to selective (and misleading) citation of Purdue’s internal business documents to attract media focus.”

Purdue Pharma’s internal analysis provides data showing patients being kept on OxyContin longer than 90 days, according to information provided to the Daily by an official in the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office.

The information also posits that Purdue staff warned the Sackler family in 2016 that it could lose over $23 million if it backed down from its high-dose strategy.

Koenigsberg first became invested in this issue when allegations against the Sackler family came to light in a 2017 article in The New Yorker. After reading the article, she started circulating it among other students and post-baccalaureate candidates at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences.

“After I realized no one knew anything about the Sacklers at this school, I decided to write that [op-ed],” Koenigsberg said. “Mostly at that point it was to bring awareness so people knew what was going on. At that point, I was not pushing for a name change or anything — it was supposed to be informational.”

Foster said interested community members held a February meeting as part of a larger effort to respond to the allegations surrounding the Sackler name in light of the opioid crisis. Foster and the other students involved are currently working on a list of demands to bring to the university.

“There’s a good amount of organizing going on around this,” he said. “One of the things we talked about was organizing a petition. Other things are going through the more formal leadership structures — so talking to the Dean of the Sackler School and President Monaco.”

Foster added that a group of students is currently arranging a meeting with University President Anthony Monaco about the issue later this month. Nick Nasser, a student at the School of Medicine and one of the people working on this meeting, could not provide further details about the group’s strategy at press time. He did, however, note in an email to the Daily that the group planned to send a letter to university administrators last week, provided they receive support from the student body.

Koenigsberg thinks the university should do more to acknowledge this issue and its relationship to the Sackler family. She stressed her frustration with Tufts’ lack of transparency on the matter.

“When I was asking about current donors to see if the Sacklers were still currently and actively donating to the school, they were like ‘We can’t release information about different donors,’” Koenigsberg said. “I wish the school would be a little more transparent about the exact sort of funding and current contributions from the Sacklers because their whole defense is, ‘Oh, they funded the creation of the school back in the ’80s before OxyContin was even a thing.’”

Collins confirmed the school’s establishment in 1980 by then-University President Jean Mayer and the Board of Trustees to promote graduate and interdisciplinary health education. Mayer and the Board subsequently established the Arthur M. Sackler Center in 1983.

“In both cases, the naming gifts were provided to the university more than a decade before OxyContin was introduced to the marketplace,” Collins said.

Collins declined to comment further on recent donations to the university.

“[Unless] otherwise required by law we do not share data on our donors except for specific reasons as outlined in our policies or to occasionally recognize certain donors, with their agreement, for their generosity and support of the university,” he said.


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