In 2019, UCL launched the new Institute of Mental Health (IoMH). The Institute is a research-based organisation, focusing its efforts on academic research into disciplines relating to mental health, including neurology, psychology and psychiatry. A UCL spokesperson said:
Mental health is one of the world’s most pressing challenges and UCL has made it a key research priority.
UCL’s Institute of Mental Health (IoMH), launched in 2019, underpins this strategy bringing together research and expertise in mental health from across the university.
Through the Institute, UCL is addressing a full spectrum of lifelong mental health issues from developmental disorders in childhood, to dementia in the elderly and is translating this research into clinical care, helping to positively impact people’s lives.
The IoMH is led by Director and Sackler Chair, Professor Anthony David. Professor David’s work at the IoMH is funded by The Sackler Trust, a charitable organisation established by the Anglo-American Sackler family. The Sacklers gained fame and notoriety due to their involvement with Purdue Pharma, which has been the subject of multiple controversies in the last two decades.
Members of the Sackler family have been on the board of Purdue Pharma, and according to Forbes, have an estimated net worth of $13billion. Notably, Purdue Pharma invented OxyContin, a slow release opioid designed for pain management, which hit the US pharmaceutical markets in 1996.
Since then, numerous pharmaceutical companies have been involved in the manufacture and sale of OxyContin and other opioids, such as Fentanyl. Consequently, opioid overdose deaths have risen in the US from under 20k p/a in 2000, to 70.2k in 2017, according to statistics from the Centre of Disease Control (CDC). Overall, the opioid crisis has claimed the lives of more than 400,000 Americans since 1999.
With the rise of the Opioid Crisis in the US, Purdue Pharma has been subject to hundreds of lawsuits, relating to its sale and manufacture of Oxy- Contin, specifically with accusations of misleading marketing and downplaying concerns about the drug. However, Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family have strongly denied any wrongdoing.
On the 21st of October 2020, Purdue Pharma reached a £6.3bn settlement, and have agreed to plead guilty to three federal criminal charges relating to the enabling of the supply of OxyContin “without legitimate medical purpose”. It is worth noting that Purdue is still facing numerous other cases relating to their involvement with OxyContin and the US Opioid crisis. The recent settlement is awaiting approval by the courts before it is formalised. The Sackler family have allegedly agreed to commit $3billion of their own fortune to the settlement.
Due to the multiple pending lawsuits, The Sackler Trust halted all new donations in 2019, but agreed to honour ongoing ones, which may include its financial commitment to the IoMH at UCL. The controversies
surrounding the Purdue Pharma and the Sackler Family, and by extension The Sackler Trust, raises the question of whether it is ethical for a reputable university such as UCL to continue its relationship with the Trust.
Moreover, is it appropriate for UCL to accept funds for the Institute of Mental Health from the Sacklers, who earnt much of their fortune from an opioid strongly linked to a mass addiction crisis?
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), “addiction is a complex condition, a brain disease that is manifested by compulsive substance use despite harmful consequence”. As a ‘brain disease’, addiction could fall under the research disciplines in which the IoMH is engaged, furthering the concern about the association of the Institute with The Sackler Trust. To date, the Institute has not widely carried out research into drug addiction, including illicit and prescription drugs. It is highly improbable that the relationship between the IoMH and The Sackler Trust would have any impact on the research conducted by the Institute, but the optics of such a relationship could be construed as unfavourable both to the IoMH and UCL.
In 2019 both the National Portrait Gallery and the Tate made the decision to reject further donations from The Sackler Trust. According to The Rolling Stone Magazine, a spokesperson for the Tate said, “We do not intend to remove references to this historic philanthropy. However, in the present circumstances we do not think it right to seek or accept further donations from the Sacklers”. In a joint statement about rejecting further donations ,The National Portrait Gallery and The Sacklers stated, “It has become evident that recent reporting of allegations made against Sackler family members may cause this new donation to deflect the National Portrait Gallery from its important work”.
According to The Sackler Trust’s Annual Reports, available publicly through the Charity Commission for England and Wales, , The Sackler Trust only made 14 Institutional Grants above £150,000 in 2019, compared to 25 in 2017. The 2019 Annual Report from The Sackler Trust also cites a £1,248,370 reduction in previous commitments, which appears to be the only reduction in commitments between 2015-2019. Whilst the report gives no reasoning behind a reduction in commitments, part of it may be due to organisations breaking ties with the Trust, as well as the Trust halting new donations in 2019 due to the controversies surrounding the Sackler family.
UCL did not specify the value of The Sackler Trust’s funding of the IoMH Director and Sackler Chair, but based on the Annual Reports, it is likely that the sum constitutes less than £150,000 p/a. UCL also did not say whether funding by The Sackler Trust was in the form of a one off payment, or a recurring donation.
When asked about UCL’s involvement with The Sackler Trust, a UCL spokesperson said:
All donations and grants are subject to regular review by the UCL Gift Acceptance Committee to ensure they are in line with our established Gift Acceptance Policy which considers the ethical aspects of the donation.
We always consider any donation or grant in the light of all the circumstances known at the time it is offered. If we were to accept any funds from Sackler in the future, we would carefully review all the current publicly available information.”
The Sackler Trust’s involvement with UCL is still listed on the Trust’s website, which claims that “The Sackler Trust is funding the inaugural Director and Chair of the Institute”. It could be construed, therefore, that the relationship between the IoMH and The Sackler Trust is an ongoing one.
UCL has also previously received a grant of £1.4million from The Sackler Trust in 2015, according to the 2015 and 2016 Annual Reports by the Trust. The purpose of the grant is not stated in the report. The Evening Standard reported that UCL has also received or has been pledged £2,654,000 by the Dr Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation, another organisation established by the members of the Sackler family, for the Institute of Skeleto-Muscular Research, and other purposes. A 2004 article on UCL News about the unveiling of a commemorative Sackler Plaque confirms the receipt of a ‘major gift’ from the Foundation by UCL. Dame Theresa Sackler is also a Trustee of The Sackler Trust.
The research undertaken by the IoMH is vitally important. Mental health has increasingly been a subject of academic and social discussion, and it is admirable for UCL to dedicate resources to mental health research. However, by affiliating themselves with the Sackler family, UCL and the IoMH make themselves vulnerable to the questioning of their ethical stance relating to the opioid addiction crisis, and therefore to the overshadowing of the important work done by the IoMH.
The grants provided to UCL by organisations linked to the Sacklers have contributed, and will continue to contribute, to important research, and the benefits of that should not be understated. But with the recent £6.3billion settlement against Purdue Pharma, to which the Sacklers are contributing a substantial amount, and with numerous other lawsuits still active relating Purdue’s involvement in the US Opioid Crisis, it is hard to extricate The Sackler Trust from the controversies surrounding Purdue and the Sackler family.