Purdue Pharma’s offices in Connecticut.
Photo: Douglas Healey (AP)

The State of New York is suing Purdue Pharma, one of the largest manufacturers and distributors of opioid painkillers, for what it says is the company’s role in driving the opioid crisis. On Tuesday morning, the attorney general’s office announced that it was filing a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical company for allegedly misleading the public and doctors about the dangers of its opioid products, particularly OxyContin.

The lawsuit is the result of a long-running investigation conducted by the New York Attorney General’s office, according to current Attorney General Barbara Underwood. (Underwood was appointed in May to replace her predecessor Eric Scheidemann, following allegations of sexual misconduct made against him.) It was filed in Suffolk County.

Advertisement

“Our investigation found a pattern of deception and reckless disregard for New Yorkers’ health and wellbeing—as Purdue lined its own pockets by deliberately exploiting our communities and fueling an opioid epidemic that’s destroyed families across the state,” said Underwood in a statement. “We’re now holding Purdue to account for this reprehensible and illegal conduct. Our work won’t stop with this lawsuit: our office will continue to lead the multistate investigation of opioid manufacturers and distributors across the country.”

At least 25 states, including Nevada, Texas, and Florida, have filed their own lawsuits against Purdue as of this May, according to Reuters, as have many state counties.

The complaint, available here, reiterates many of the claims made in other lawsuits about Purdue’s marketing of OxyContin and other opioids. It says that starting in the 1990s, Purdue convinced more and more doctors to prescribe opioids for a wider range of medical conditions. Purdue’s pitch to doctors largely involved its blockbuster drug OxyContin, approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1995.

Advertisement

The company spent over a billion dollars in marketing, including the funding of outside advocacy groups, to convince doctors that Oxycontin was a safer, less-addictive alternative to previous opioid drugs, and that it would relieve pain for longer between doses, according to the complaint. But the company soon heard of reports, as early as 1997, that OxyContin’s pain-killing effects often didn’t last as long as advertised, and that people were becoming addicted to the drug, the complaint alleges.

Despite these warnings, the complaint claims, the company’s attempts to downplay the potential for addiction went unhindered for years. In 2007, the company pleaded guilty to federal charges that it had misled regulators and others about OxyContin, and agreed to pay $600 million in fines as a result. And in 2015, Purdue signed an agreement with the New York Attorney General’s office, pledging it would behave responsibly within the state.

But Purdue has continued to misbehave since then, according to the lawsuit. It claims that Purdue has done little to flag suspicious prescribers who may be illegally distributing opioids and that it has funded third-party campaigns that have pushed against laws and regulations to combat opioid demand. The company has also allegedly continued to aggressively sell its products, even to doctors who were already punished for inappropriately prescribing opioids. In February, Purdue claimed to finally have changed how it markets its drugs.

Advertisement

“New York and its residents have sustained and continue to suffer enormous harms as a result of the disaster that Purdue’s actions helped cause,” the complaint stated. In 2016, it cited as an example, there were a recorded 3,086 opioid overdose deaths in New York, with nearly 2,400 deaths tied to prescription painkillers, including those sold by Purdue.

Update: Purdue sent this statement to Gizmodo via email.

“We share the state’s concern about the opioid crisis. While our opioid medicines account for less than 2% of total prescriptions, we will continue to work collaboratively with the state toward bringing meaningful solutions to address this public health challenge. We vigorously deny the state’s allegations. The state claims Purdue acted improperly by communicating with prescribers about scientific and medical information that FDA has expressly considered and continues to approve. We believe it is inappropriate for the state to substitute its judgment for the judgment of the regulatory, scientific and medical experts at FDA.”

Advertisement