Ethan Barton, DCNF
- OxyContin’s manufacturer and its billionaire owners gave millions of dollars to political candidates
- Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies spread propaganda and lobbied in favor of opioid prescribing
- When excluding organizations and only looking at candidates, Democrats received nearly $110,000 more than GOP politicians
OxyContin’s manufacturer and its billionaire owners gave millions of dollars to political candidates — who often held powerful positions — and organizations, but the opioid profiteers’ tentacles of influence reach much farther, a Daily Caller News Foundation investigation has found.
The Sackler family and Purdue Pharma, which is widely blamed for playing an essential role in starting the opioid epidemic, have given more than $1.3 million to U.S. candidates and another $1 million to political organizations since OxyContin’s creation, according to Center for Responsive Politics data, but that’s just the surface of how deep the pharmaceutical titans’ influence runs.
“It’s blood money, literally,” Public Citizen’s Health Research Group founder and senior adviser Sidney Wolfe told TheDCNF. “It’s money earned off people’s lives being spent. This is dirty, bloody money.”
It’s difficult to tell exactly how far Purdue’s influence reaches, because the pharmaceutical industry pays front organizations to do most of its lobbying and that often occurs at the state level. The company has also pushed their influence in areas outside of Congress, such as to patient advocacy groups, hospital accreditors, physicians and federal agencies.
“As long as they pay out a nickel for every quarter or dollar they make, they’ll just keep doing it,” Wolfe told TheDCNF.
Ultimately, Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies spread propaganda and lobbied in favor of opioid prescribing through a variety of channels that are much less transparent than contributing money to political campaigns and groups, numerous investigations have shown.
Purdue is unique among other pharmaceutical giants in that it’s privately owned. The company’s $35 billion in OxyContin sales helped fuel the Sacklers’ $13 billion net worth, putting the clan among America’s 20 richest families, according to Forbes. A number of the family members serve on Purdue’s board and at least one living Sackler held numerous leadership positions.
Purdue launched a highly aggressive and deceptive marketing campaign following OxyContin’s late-1995 release, which effectively reversed doctors’ fears of opioids’ addictiveness, a previous DCNF investigation found. The company and three top executives pleaded guilty in 2007 to misleading physicians and were forced to pay nearly $635 million in fines.
Prescription opioid overdoses killed more than 200,000 Americans between 1999 and 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Addicts in many cases became dependent on the drugs after doctors gave them prescriptions for legitimate purposes.
Additionally, 80 percent of heroin abusers first used prescription opioids, according to a recent report.
Meanwhile, Purdue and the Sacklers have disbursed $2.3 million to nearly 300 U.S. candidates and political organizations since 1996, and Congress, until recently, has done very little to combat the opioid epidemic, TheDCNF’s investigation found. The OxyContin-backed politicians often held leadership positions, chairmanships, or served on committees that have oversight of the pharmaceutical industry.
Conversely, the Sacklers have never publicly donated to addiction rehabilitation centers, a previous DCNF investigation found.
The Sacklers and their company donated to a wide range of candidates, including Democrats, Republicans and independents, incumbents and challengers, presidential contenders and a variety of organizations, TheDCNF found. And just over one-third of the money went to only five recipients.
Former Sen. Joe Lieberman took the most funding from the Sacklers and Purdue and accepted more than $220,000, according to TheDCNF’s analysis. The Democrat-turned Independent served Connecticut, where the company is headquartered and where some of the Sacklers live.
Lieberman ran for vice president on former Vice President Al Gore’s presidential ticket, and chaired the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and a Senate armed services subcommittee. He also voted against legislation that would have reduced drug prices and voted to extend tax credits for pharmaceutical research and development, according to a 2000 Washington Post article.
“In his nearly 12 years in the Senate, Lieberman has been one of the strongest advocates for the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, which employ thousands of people in his home state,” the report said.
Additionally, his wife served as the senior counsel for a lobbying company’s health care and pharmaceutical sector.
“I was not aware of exactly how much people associated with Purdue had contributed to my campaigns but, of course, I knew they were supportive in the same way that many other Connecticut companies were supportive because I was one of their two senators,” Lieberman told TheDCNF. “I knew of the older generation of Sacklers mostly based on their extraordinary philanthropic contributions and one of their sons … because he was a leader in the effort to reform Connecticut’s public schools.”
The former senator said he knew of the company’s 2007 admission, but didn’t comment on the ethics of taking money from a group that pleaded guilty to using deceitful tactics to increase revenue streams by getting more people prescribed a highly addictive drug.
“Afterward, I remember hearing, Purdue manufactured OxyContin so that it could not be converted to illegal uses,” Lieberman said. He did not respond after TheDCNF informed him that studies have linked prescriptions opioids that are harder to snort or inject to more dangerous drug abuse and other health concerns.
“More recently I read in the media that their sales people would no longer market OxyContin which, I recall being told, accounts for a very small percentage of opioid sales in America,” Lieberman said. He similarly did not respond after being informed that critics have said Purdue needed to scale back its marketing sooner.
“The rest is up to you and your conscience, Ethan,” Lieberman said.
Former Sen. Chris Dodd — another Connecticut Democrat — took the second most from the Sacklers and Purdue, raking in more than $85,000, TheDCNF’s analysis found. He served on the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) — a panel that’s now holding hearings on the opioid epidemic — and chaired one of its subcommittees. He also chaired the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committee.
Dodd sponsored legislation that called for research on pain in America, and a group tied to Purdue spent $19 million lobbying in favor of the bill, according to a joint investigation by The Associated Press and The Center for Public Integrity. Nearly half the experts recruited to author the resulting 364-page report had pharmaceutical industry ties.
The Sacklers and Purdue gave former Republican Rep. Christopher Shays, who represented the district where Purdue is headquartered, the third-most funding with nearly $84,000, TheDCNF found.
Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet took the fourth most, and was the biggest recipient among the legislators currently serving with $54,000 in contributions. Bennet serves on the Senate HELP committee and voted against legislation that reportedly would have helped lower drug prices.
Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut — the Democrat who replaced Shays — took more than $35,000 from the Sacklers and Purdue, making him the second biggest recipient among sitting lawmakers.
The Sacklers and Purdue also gave $245,200 to the Republican National Committee — more than any other recipient, TheDCNF found. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s super PAC created during the 2012 presidential election cycle, Restore Our Future, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee took the fourth and fifth most among political organizations and received $100,000 and $52,000, respectively.
Purdue’s lobbying arm was the second biggest recipient, having received $140,000, followed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which took more than $109,000.
Purdue and the Sacklers donated to Democrats and Republicans nearly evenly. About 47 percent of the funding went to Republican candidates and organizations, while around 41 percent went to Democrats — a difference of about $133,300, TheDCNF found. The remaining money went to third-party candidates and organizations considered apolitical, though some, such as Planned Parenthood and Club for Growth Action have clear ideologies.
When excluding organizations and only looking at candidates, Democrats received nearly $110,000 more than GOP politicians.
The Sacklers and Purdue also contributed to several high-profile politicians.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example, received more than $37,000 from the OxyContin titans for her first senatorial race and both presidential races, according to TheDCNF’s analysis. As a New York senator, Clinton served on the Senate HELP committee and the committees on the budget and aging.
Former President Barack Obama, another former Senate HELP committee member who also served on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, received more than $19,000 for his presidential runs.
Others include Romney, who took nearly $34,000 and Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Republican who’s headed several Senate committees and took nearly $12,000. Romney recently announced his run to replace Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican who received $360,000 from the pharmaceutical industry, according to the AP and The Center for Public Integrity investigation.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who’s generally had a tough stance on opioids, took $2,000 from Beverly Sackler and Purdue, TheDCNF found. The Connecticut Democrat — while serving as the state’s attorney general — sent a letter in 2001 to Beverly’s son, Richard Sackler, asking the then-president of Purdue to address reports of OxyContin addiction and abuse.
Most legislative efforts seeking to curb opioid abuse have occurred at the state level, where Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies have focused their lobbying efforts, according the AP and The Center for Public Integrity investigation.
The pharmaceutical industry spent more than $880 million on lobbying and campaign contributions nationwide from 2006 through 2015, the investigation found. The report outlined how drugmakers, including Purdue, were often involved in drafting, influencing, delaying or killing state-level legislation, often through secretive methods, such as funding and coordinating with various advocacy groups.
“By far the biggest lobby is the drug industry,” Public Citizen’s Wolfe told TheDCNF. “The opioid epidemic is caused by the industry. It has continued long after it was first realized since so little has been done.”
A top Purdue lobbyist, Burt Rosen, co-founded the Pain Care Forum — a network of opioid stakeholders, which proved to be highly effective at influencing policy in national and state politics, the news investigation found.
The forum — whose participants received funding from the pharmaceutical industry — spent more than $740 million on lobbying across the country, according to the AP and Center for Public Integrity report. The Pain Care Forum also held meetings that included dozens of lobbyists and executives and advocated opioids’ necessity to the Food and Drug Administration.
The forum helped submit more than 2,000 comments to the FDA opposing restrictions to opioid prescriptions and submitted a 4,000-signature petition opposing registries of opioid prescriptions, the report said.
Purdue also hired a public relations firm to organize support for legislation that required or encouraged the prescribing of its reformulated version of OxyContin, which had mechanisms that prevented abuse, according to another AP and Center for Public Integrity report.
Such reformulations, which reports say are often more dangerous than the original versions, extended drug patents and let pharmaceutical giants prevent generic manufacturers from encroaching on their massive revenue streams. Reformulating OxyContin extended Purdue’s patent on the drug until 2030, the AP and The Center for Public Integrity reported.
Additionally, five pharmaceutical companies paid 14 pain-treatment advocacy groups nearly $9 million between 2012 and 2017 and another $1.6 million to physicians associated with those organizations, a report Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri released in February said. Purdue was the largest contributor and accounted for $4.7 million of the payments.
“Initiatives from the groups in this report often echoed and amplified messages favorable to increased opioid use – and ultimately, the financial interests of opioid manufacturers,” the report said. “These groups have issued guidelines and policies minimizing the risk of opioid addiction and promoting opioids for chronic pain, lobbied to change laws directed at curbing opioid use and argued against accountability for physicians and industry executives responsible for overprescription and misbranding.”
McCaskill emphasized that the financial relationships lacked transparency.
“It’s all buried,” Wolfe said. “It’s buried in all these front organizations and pain organizations.”
Purdue also paid a powerful organization that accredited 80 of America’s hospitals at the time, which all but required doctors to prescribe opioids after establishing new standards for treating patients with chronic pain, TheDCNF’s Steve Birr previously reported.
The Sacklers are also world-renowned philanthropists and have funded high-profile institutions, such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Guggenheim Museum — organizations that aggressively avoided DCNF reporters asking about their opioid funding. Two critics previously called the Sacklers’ donations “blood money.”
Richard Sackler and two other deceased family members’ estates were recently named as defendants in a lawsuit alleging they were crucial in causing opioid addiction, TheDCNF previously reported. Purdue was also named and has been included in hundreds of state and local lawsuits across the country.
“We are deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis, and we are dedicated to being part of the solution,” Purdue spokesman Bob Josephson told TheDCNF. “Purdue’s led industry efforts to combat prescription drug abuse which includes collaborating with law enforcement, funding state prescription drug monitoring programs and directing health care professionals to the CDC’s Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain. In addition, we’ve recently announced educational initiatives aimed at teenagers warning of the dangers of opioids and continue to fund grants to law enforcement to help with accessing naloxone.”
The Sackler’s political funding was likely undercounted, because TheDCNF only included contributions it could confirm came from family members. There were numerous instances where TheDCNF excluded contributions that were almost certainly from family members, but there was room for error.
Most political candidates were counted in the party they identify with. Lieberman was counted as a Democrat, because he stayed in the Senate Democratic Caucus after he switched to an Independent, and Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont was counted as a Democrat, since he ran on the Democratic ticket during his presidential bid.
Except Lieberman, no politicians or political organizations named in this report responded to requests for comment.
Asya Paez contributed to this report.