Editorial: Tufts should cut ties with Purdue Pharma, Sackler family

A bottle of pills is pictured. Via Flickr.

The Sackler family and Purdue Pharma used Tufts University as a staging ground for promoting their mainstay opioid painkiller OxyContin. The close relationships pursued between Purdue Pharma and Tufts helped ignite the current opioid crisis, which has claimed the lives of 400,000 Americans and damaged countless more. 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. In shaping the curriculum at this university, they encouraged doctors-in-training to over-prescribe highly-addictive OxyContin to patients they characterized as “opioid-naïve.”

Describing addiction as an epidemic erases the agency of the individuals and institutions who caused this crisis. The opioid crisis did not break out like other epidemics — it was created by people like Richard Sackler, co-chairman and former president of Purdue. The Sacklers made billions of dollars hooking pain-stricken patients on OxyContin. The lawsuit alleges that when the drug’s inventor, Robert Kaiko, warned Sackler that the pill was highly likely to be abused, Sackler responded, “How substantially would [that] improve your sales?” Purdue sales representatives went on to market OxyContin as a non-addictive treatment for pain.

Since 1999, over 200,000 Americans have overdosed on prescription painkillers. If the American criminal justice system provided an avenue to combat unethical business practices equally, regardless of industry, the Sacklers and the Purdue staff who were aware of this deceit would be treated as harshly as any cartel heads. 

We cannot be content with leaving justice up to the courts. The opioid crisis was engineered in our own backyard: Tufts’ Sackler Graduate School. Though OxyContin didn’t hit the market until 1996, the Sacklers donated money in 1980 to found the school, and later used it to legitimize OxyContin’s use. Purdue granted the Sackler School funding for a whole new degree program, a Master of Science in Pain Research, Education and Policy. 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.

Tufts has crossed a line past complicity. Tufts should cut all institutional, professional, financial and personal ties with Purdue and the Sacklers, and remove all educational content produced by Purdue from Tufts curricula. As suggested by Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone, the university should also rename the Sackler School and the Sackler Center for Medical Education and dedicate substantial funding to humane opioid addiction treatment.

Tufts’ Executive Director of Public Relations Patrick Collins told the Daily in an email that Tufts is “committed to the highest ethical and scientific standards in research and education.” Collins said that Tufts will review its connections to the Sacklers for violations of conflict of interest guidelines. If the Massachusetts Attorney General is to be believed, Tufts has violated any reasonable interpretation of conflict of interest, and should be held accountable. Allowing private companies to market drugs under the guise of academia is moral corruption. It is time for Tufts leadership to take its role as a force for progress seriously, even if that means turning money away. Tufts must help remedy the crisis it helped create.


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