OxyContin, manufactured by Purdue Pharma LP.
Photo: AP

The state of Massachusetts has filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma LP, the company that developed the semisynthetic opioid OxyContin in 1995 and aggressively marketed it while downplaying the risk of addiction. It’s part of a growing backlash to Purdue, a pharmaceutical giant the New Yorker characterized as an “Empire of Pain,” and whose business tactics have become a major point of contention in the struggle over a nationwide opioid crisis linked to an estimated 59,000-65,000 deaths a year.

Per NPR, state officials held a press conference on Tuesday announcing a suit against Purdue and 16 current or former directors, saying that Purdue lied about the risk those taking it could end up addicted or worse:

“Their strategy was simple: The more drugs they sold, the more money they made — and the more people died,” the state’s attorney general, Maura Healey, said at a news conference on Tuesday, flanked by Gov. Charlie Baker and law enforcement officials.

“We found that Purdue engaged in a multibillion-dollar enterprise to mislead us about their drugs,” she added. “Purdue pushed prescribers to give higher doses to keep patients on drugs for longer periods of time, without regard to the very real risks of addiction, overdose and death.”

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The 80-page civil suit alleges that Massachusetts Department of Public Health data shows of the 11,000 people who died from opioid-related overdoses in the past decade, at least 671 of them had filled prescriptions for OxyContin, NPR wrote. It also alleges that since 2007, Purdue’s sales staff met with prescribers and sales people a jaw-dropping 150,000-plus times.

NPR added that of the defendants, at least half are members of the billionaire Sackler family, the owners of Purdue.

According to Reuters, while the suit is similar to “a growing list of lawsuits by states and local governments,” the Massachusetts state one is the only targeting company directors for liability. Reuters noted that state Attorney General Maura Healey was already involved in settlement talks, but had decided to continue pursuing a separate suit due to alleged harm being done to the state’s residents:

Healey had been part of a group of 41 state attorneys general who were working together to investigate opioid manufacturers and distributors, including Purdue, and to negotiate settlements with the companies.

But in a May 8 letter, Healey’s office notified Purdue that while it would continue to engage in settlement talks, it believed the public deserved immediate resources to mitigate the crisis and planned to sue.

The letter was disclosed when six other states participating in the multistate investigation decided to sue Purdue on May 15. In total, it faces lawsuits by 24 states and the territory of Puerto Rico.

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For its part, Purdue denies the allegations. It told NPR in a statement, “We share the Attorney General’s concern about the opioid crisis. We are disappointed, however, that in the midst of good faith negotiations with many states, the Commonwealth has decided to pursue a costly and protracted litigation process... We will continue to work collaboratively with the states toward bringing meaningful solutions.”

Purdue made an estimated $35 billion in revenue off OxyContin, while doctors and patients alike soon found that the drug came with serious withdrawal symptoms upon cessation after long-term use or even between doses. While in the 1990s the Food and Drug Administration had approved the company’s claims the drug was not addictive, by the end of that decade, Justice Department reports show Purdue was aware the drug was being widely abused. In 2007, the company and three directors pleaded guilty in a federal case over misbranding and paid out $635 million.

While Purdue announced earlier this year that it would end direct marketing of OxyContin to doctors, the damage is already done: Per Vox, studies in JAMA Psychiatry and by the Centers for Disease Control have respectively found the vast majority of heroin users started with prescription painkillers and that painkiller addiction is deeply associated with subsequent heroin use. (Prescription drug and heroin use is also inextricably connected to the rise of dangerous synthetic opioids like fentanyl, which are fast adding to the death count.) In 2017, according to STAT, a panel of experts estimated that “the death toll over the next decade could top 650,000.”

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[NPR/Reuters]