Sacklers Gave Millions to Institution That Advises on Opioid Policy

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have been accepting funds from some members of the Sackler family, including those involved with Purdue Pharma, even as the nation's drug crisis has mounted.

Sacklers Gave Millions to Institution That Advises on Opioid Policy

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, an acclaimed advisory group, has been relied upon by the White House and Congress for the last decade to help shape federal responses to the opioid epidemic, whether it be through expert panels, policy recommendations and reports, or convening expert groups.

Officials with the National Academies are keeping quiet about one issue: the decision to accept donations of roughly $19,000,000 from the Sackler Family, owners of Purdue Pharma and makers of OxyContin, a drug that is notoriously blamed for the opioid crisis.

The opioid crisis led to thousands of overdoses, lawsuits and other institutions publicly distancing themselves from Sackler's money or acknowledging potential conflicts of interests from Purdue Pharma ties. National Academies continues to provide advice to the government about painkillers, despite being under scrutiny.

Michael Von Korff said, "I didn't realize they were taking private funds." Michael Von Korff is a well-known pain researcher. It sounds insane to accept money from drug company executives and then write reports about opioids. I am shocked.

The National Academies, unlike the World Health Organization which was accused by Purdue of being manipulated and later retracted its two opioid policy reports has not conducted a review to determine whether the Sackler donation influenced their policymaking despite publishing two major reports influencing national opioid policy.

In 2011, one of these reports was released and is now widely discredited. It claimed that 100,000,000 Americans suffer from chronic pain. This estimate has been proven to be highly exaggerated. It gave drug companies another talking point to use in aggressive sales campaigns. It also encouraged doctors to prescribe opioids more frequently and convinced the Food and Drug Administration that at least one powerful opioid was safe.

In 2016, another problem emerged months after the National Academies had received a $10,000,000 donation from the Sackler Family. The F.D.A. The F.D.A. had asked the institution to create a committee that would issue new opioid recommendations. One senator, however, took issue with some of the Academy members, claiming they had "substantial connections" to opioid manufacturers, including Purdue. Four people were removed before the work started.


Abraham Lincoln chartered the National Academies in 1863 as a non-governmental organization to act as an independent advisor to the nation regarding science and medicine. The National Academies elects members each year, a career-defining honor for doctors and scientists.

The advisory group has been criticized in recent years for failing to disclose conflicts of interest when preparing reports on biotechnology and genetically modified foods. Lisa Bero said that the Academy's failure to disclose the financial ties of committee members with industry for many years has placed them in the "dark age" of research integrity.

Dr. Bero stated that accepting millions of dollars in compensation from the Sackler Family while advising the Federal Government on pain policy would be considered a Conflict of Interest under 'almost any conflict-of interest policy I have ever seen'.

The Sackler family's business practices and Purdue's lavish spending have been investigated by lawmakers and others. This has amplified the voices and demands of doctors, medical groups and other organizations for more opioid prescriptions in spite of a rise in overdose deaths.

The National Academies have not attracted public attention, except for an article published in a medical magazine in 2019. After internal meetings it quietly removed Sackler's name from conferences and awards that the family had sponsored.

Megan Lowry is a spokesperson for the National Academies. She said that the Sackler contributions 'were not used to support any activities to advise on the use or prevention of opioids'. Ms. Lowry said that legal restrictions and the refusal of donors to accept the money back prevented the National Academies from returning Sackler's donations. The Academies refused to allow senior officials to be interviewed.

In 2019, the Sackler donations became an issue within the advisory group when the members of the governing Council were informed about the money. Sylvester Gates (also known as Jim), a Brown University physicist and member of the advisory group, said that members were 'outraged,' and they wanted to make sure the money did not influence work at the Academies. Dr. Gates explained that returning the money was a more complex task than studying string theory.


The National Academies receives 70% of its budget through federal funding. The remainder comes from private donors and endowments, such as corporations that sell chemicals, fossil fuels and prescription drugs.

According to Academy treasurers' reports, Dr. Raymond Sackler and Beverly Sackler and their foundation were the first members of the Sackler Family to donate to the National Academies. The Sacklers died in 2017 & 2019 respectively.

Daniel S. Connolly is a lawyer representing the Raymond and Beverly Sackler family branch. He said that the couple donated $13.1 million. This amount differs a little from the $14.25 million reported in the National Academies Treasurer reports. Connolly stated that the donations were made to support the National Academy of Sciences in ways that had nothing to do with drugs, pain or the company.

The National Academies Treasurer's Reports describe the science-related awards, events and studies that Raymond and Beverly Sackler supported.

Reports show that donations from Dame Jillian, whose late husband Arthur died before OxyContin was on the market in 2000, reached $5 million by 2017. The treasurer's report states that these donations were used to fund a series scientific meetings.

According to the treasurer's report for 2021, the Sackler gifts qualified them to join the Lincoln Society. This group is comprised of the top donors who increase the Academies' "impact as advisors to the country." The Academies invested these funds and they grew them to over $31 million at the end of 2021.


According to documents released in lawsuits filed against opioid manufacturers, Purdue Pharma's lobbyist tried to gain traction with the Academies as the Sackler donation grew. Burt Rosen's group, The Pain Care Forum (co-founded by the Purdue lobbyist), pushed legislation in 2007 and 2009. It included a call for a National Academies Report to "increase recognition of pain as an important public health problem."

M. Rosen, shortly after the law was passed, convened a gathering of the Pain Care Forum for 10 pm to discuss'meetings' with the Institute of Medicine (the former name of the National Academy of Medicine) and'membership in the I.O.M. Committee.'

The National Academies formed a committee to produce their 2011 opioids report. This included an estimate of about 100 million, or 42 percent, American adults in pain. Other researchers found this figure to be greatly inflated. The report described chronic, crippling pain that cost the country billions in lost wages and salary. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later estimated that chronic pain was classified by severity and affected 7 to 21 percent Americans.

The report didn't disclose the Sackler fund or any conflict of interest statements for committee members. The National Academies did not release conflict statements of its members, according to a spokeswoman.

Richard Payne, one of the panelists, was the president of the American Pain Society in 2003 and 2004. At the time, Purdue received more than $900,000. Dr. Payne passed away in 2019.

Records released by the Senate Finance Committee in 2020 reveal that another panelist, Myra Christopher exchanged emails with Purdue staff in 2007 about 'talking-points' to respond to an opioid news broadcast.

Ms. Christopher, at the time the report for 2011 was written, was the president of the Center for Practical Bioethics (a Kansas City-based nonprofit). Purdue donated $934,770 in that same year to the organization. When asked about the funding, John Carney sent a letter in which he stated that the donors of the organization did not dictate its work. Ms. Christopher declined comment.

The 2011 report that allowed pharmaceutical companies argue that doctors should prescribing more opioids came out at the same time as the White House released a message that was very different -- the nation faced an opioid addiction epidemic.

After the National Academies' report was released, Dr. Andrew Kolodny of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing emailed Purdue to ask if it would reveal that Ms. Christopher’s organization received funding from Purdue.

Clyde Behney replied to an email sent by The New York Times in August 2011, stating that he was unable to do so. Keep in mind that since the report has been completed and published, the future is of greater importance than the past.

Mr. Behney refused to comment. The National Academies released a statement explaining how it arrived at its estimate of 100 million Americans suffering from pain. In the article by Dr. Victor Dzau of the National Academy of Medicine he stated that conflict of interest was not a concern for the authors of this report. He said they were thoroughly vetted. The JAMA article did not mention the Sackler family's donations.

Dr. Dzau wrote to JAMA to clarify that he had not disclosed conflicts of interest in the article or in others, such as funds he received for a device that infuses pain medication.

Purdue lawyers cited the outsized pain number repeatedly over the years, including in 2012 when they responded to a Senate investigation by describing the figure as proof of pain that had been 'untreated or treated inadequately'. The statistic was also emphasized by federal officials. In 2014, Margaret Hamburg, F.D.A. At the time, the commissioner cited the number of 100,000,000 people "living with severe chronic Pain" to explain why they approved an opioid controversially called Zohydro.

Another Panel is Questioned


In 2016, the National Academies would be examining a whole new group of committee members.

In that year, the number of deaths from opioid overdoses was on the rise. They would soon surpass car accidents as the most common cause of death in America. Congress was pressuring Dr. Robert Califf to act.

He turned to National Academies. Dr. Califf, along with other F.D.A. officials, cited the 100 million Americans who suffer from pain. In an article published in The New England Journal of Medicine, officials stated that the institution "brings a highly respected and unbiased perspective on these issues which can help us to revise our Framework." Dr. Califf became a member of The Academies in the following year.

In a letter sent to Dr. Dzau (president of the National Academy of Medicine), Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon raised concerns over 'potential conflict of interest and bias.' The senator pointed out that Purdue funded a person's research which used the term "pseudoaddiction" to minimize the appeal of opioids.

The National Academies replaced four of the panelists. The final report of the committee was well-respected and is still a crucial document for the F.D.A. which stated that it consulted with a number of sources in order to tackle the drug crisis. Dr. Califf still relies on the report which called for a "fundamental change" in the country's approach towards prescribing opioids.

Shannon Hatch, a spokeswoman for the F.D.A., stated that they were unaware of this donation. The F.D.A. was unaware that the Sackler Family donated to the Academies, and the 2017 report speaks volumes.

Richard Bonnie, the chairman of The Times' panel and the director of The University of Virginia Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy, and Aaron Kesselheim, a Harvard Medical School Professor, both said that they had not been aware of Sackler Family donations before The Times asked them about it. Dr. Kesselheim stated that he did not feel any pressure, influence or expectation from anyone at The National Academies about what they would say.

The BMJ published an article in which it examined potential conflicts between Dr. Dzau, and members of another Academy committee that was convened to review opioid prescribing guidelines.

The Justice Department has since announced an $8 billion criminal and civil settlement with Purdue Pharma, and a settlement with the Sackler Family. These Sackler family member agreed to pay $225 millions to settle civil claims and stated that they acted "ethically and legally." The family members have not been charged with any criminal offenses.

The Sacklers proposed conditions have been challenged and the bankruptcy plan for reorganizing Purdue to resolve thousands of opioid claims is currently under appeal review.

The Times asked Purdue Pharma to answer a series of questions regarding its contacts with The Academies. Michele Sharp, Purdue's spokeswoman did not directly address any of these issues. She said that the company is focused on bankruptcy and settlement procedures. She said that the settlement would provide over $10 billion in value for opioid crisis abatement and overdose rescue medications, as well as victim compensation.

Tufts University was one of the institutions that examined more publicly their use of Sackler contributions. It released a report on possible conflicts of interests related to Purdue Pharma-funded pain research education. The report raised concerns about a Purdue executive giving lectures to students every semester.

In 2019, the World Health Organization retracted its two guidelines on opioid policy following concerns raised by lawmakers about connections between report authors and funders, including Purdue's subsidiary, with opioid manufacturers.

Experts in nonprofit law stated that the National Academies were in a unique position, as they had millions of dollars but no plan for how to use them.

Some universities have used the funds they received from the Sacklers for the treatment or prevention of addiction.

Michael West, Senior Vice President of the New York Council of Nonprofits said it would be worthwhile for the Academies of Medicine to follow the lead of their organization.

He said that this would be one way to try and make things right.