Tel Aviv University Refuses to Reject Donations From Sackler Family Embroiled in Opioids Crisis

Columbia University and Guggenheim Museum are among institutions not accepting new donations from family members behind company that makes OxyContin

Entrance to the Sackler Health Sciences Complex on Tel Aviv University campus.
Ofer Vaknin

Although a growing number of major museums and academic institutions in the United States have decided not to accept any further donations from the Sackler family due to their company producing a drug at the center of the U.S. opioid epidemic, Israel’s greatest beneficiary of the family’s largesse — Tel Aviv University — is refusing to do so.

“As long as the issue has not been resolved in court, the university will not address the matter,” it said in response to an inquiry from Haaretz on Tuesday.

>> Read more: Sackler name is everywhere at Tel Aviv University, but not the opioid controversy plaguing the familyOpioid suits against Sackler family's Purdue may cost Teva up to $3 billion

Anger has been growing internationally against the role some Sackler family members are alleged to have played in America’s opioid crisis — which claimed the lives of nearly 400,000 people between 1999 and 2017, according to the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About half of those deaths are estimated to have been from prescription drugs, including OxyContin — the painkiller made by Purdue Pharma, the U.S. pharmaceutical giant owned by the Sacklers.

Sackler family members with ties to the company have denied any wrongdoing, but face some 2,000 lawsuits across the United States alleging that Purdue pushed prescription painkillers on unsuspecting physicians and patients while concealing their addiction and overdose risks.

Museums and universities who have received generous donations, including funding for entire buildings and research programs — as Tel Aviv University has — have come under growing pressure to stop taking such donations.

Among the prestigious institutions refusing further donations are Columbia University; the University of Washington in Seattle; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and American Museum of National History in New York; and Tate Modern in London..

File photo showing OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy, in Montpelier, Vermont.
Toby Talbot/AP

Sackler family members who are still actively involved in Purdue Pharma responded to the Met halting donations by saying that though the allegations against their family were “false and unfair,” they understood that “accepting gifts at this time would put the Met in a difficult position.”

The Sackler family is worth an estimated $13 billion.

Increasing use of painkillers

Tel Aviv University is home to the Sackler School of Medicine, dedicated in 1976 by three brothers — Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler. Arthur Sackler died in 1987 and his widow and his descendants say their branch of the family never profited from the drug. It was Mortimer and Raymond Sackler who owned Purdue Pharma, the company that made billions off OxyContin, after it entered the market in 1996.

Israel has not been hit by the opioid epidemic affecting the United States. However, Physicians for Human Rights Israel warned this week that there has been a 125 percent increase in prescriptions for opioid-based painkillers in the country over the past five years.

“The increase is worrying also because we have learned that Purdue, which markets one of the leading drugs in that category, OxyContin, and has recently seen a dramatic decrease in U.S. sales, is now increasing its effort to market it elsewhere — including aggressive lobbying of physicians and opinion leaders. American observers have warned that without adequate preparation to face the OTC opioid threat, we would face a global public health crisis,” the organization wrote in a post shared on social media.

“For these reasons,” the statement continued, “we made an urgent appeal to the Ministry of Health, asking what is done to prevent the ‘importing’ of the opioid crisis to Israel. Does it gather information regarding the involvement of the producers and marketers of opioids by sponsoring courses and conferences? Does it examine whether lecturers invited to coach physicians on the subject are involved in business relations with the pharma companies? And are data on opioid-related cases of death and addition collected in Israel?”

In March, the organization sent a letter to the dean of the Sackler School of Medicine, requesting that the family’s name be removed. In a statement, the organization said it had done so because of “the inherent, acute clash between the sense of the medical calling that the faculty strives to imbue in its students, seeking to highlight the humanistic and ethical aspects of practicing medicine, and the conduct of members of the Sackler family as it emerges from publications and lawsuits filed against them in different American states.”

In 2007, the company pleaded guilty to charges of misleading physicians, regulators and patients about OxyContin’s potential for abuse as a highly addictive drug. But this January, Massachusetts filed a lawsuit accusing certain family members of helping deceive the public about the drug, even telling their marketers to urge doctors to prescribe the highest-dose version to drive up profits.

Purdue Pharma said in a statement that the suit is “part of a continuing effort to single out Purdue, blame it for the entire opioid crisis in the United States, and try the case in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system.”

Tel Aviv University is also home to the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Faculty of Exact Sciences, the Sackler Cellular & Molecular Imaging Center, and the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Institute of Biophysics. According to university publications, these are just some of the 30-plus Sackler-supported units on campus.

The Sacklers have also helped establish cooperative research projects in recent years. Projects they fund include the Tel Aviv University-Harvard Astronomy Program and the Tel Aviv University-UC Berkeley Fund in the Physical, Biomedical and Engineering Sciences.