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May 16, 2019

Iowa and four states sue Purdue Pharma over opioid epidemic

Marketing of OxyContin was deceptive and pervasive, lawsuit alleges

DES MOINES — Attorney General Tom Miller joined four other states Thursday in suing Purdue Pharma and its former president and board chairman, Richard Sackler, alleging that the drug company engaged in unfair, deceptive and unlawful practices in the marketing of OxyContin, helping fuel the nation’s opioid crisis.

Iowa’s lawsuit, filed in Polk County District Court, seeks restitution and civil penalties under Iowa’s Consumer Fraud Act. It alleges that Purdue, and its related companies Purdue Frederick Co., Purdue Pharmaceuticals and P.F. Laboratories, repeatedly made false and deceptive claims that OxyContin was safe and suitable for a wide range of pain patients. Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that Purdue claimed that OxyContin posed a low risk of addiction; symptoms of addiction were in fact only “pseudoaddiction” indicating the need for more opioids; long-term opioid use improved patients’ quality of life and function; and that opioids were suitable for vulnerable groups, such as elderly patients and veterans. 

From 1999 to 2017, almost 218,000 people died in the United States from overdoses related to prescription opioids, according to the U.S. Centers on Disease Control and Prevention.

“Purdue Pharma is responsible for a public health crisis that has profoundly affected patients, their families, our communities, and our health care system,” Miller said. “The company and its executives were recklessly indifferent to the impact of their actions, despite ever-mounting evidence that their deceptions were resulting in an epidemic of addiction and death.”

The five states — Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, West Virginia and Wisconsin — filed separate lawsuits Thursday. They join 39 other states in suing Purdue. The state AGs have also voluntarily participated in the multidistrict litigation process overseen by U.S. District Judge Dan Polster in Ohio with Purdue and other opioid manufacturers and distributors.

The lawsuit alleges that Richard Sackler played a key role in developing and disseminating Purdue’s deceptions and misrepresentations about OxyContin’s risk of abuse and addition. Sackler, of Riviera Beach, Fla., has served many roles with Purdue starting in 1971, including as its president from 1999 through 2003. He took a seat on the Board of Directors in 1999 and became co-chair in 2003, a position he held until his resignation in 2018.

HOW THE CRISIS HAPPENED

Connecticut-based Purdue introduced OxyContin in 1996. The lawsuit alleges that Purdue did not conduct any abuse liability studies before it rushed the drug to market.

OxyContin is twice as potent as morphine. However, public documents show that Sackler and other executives agreed that “it would be extremely dangerous at this early stage in the life of [OxyContin] … to make physicians think the drug is stronger or equal to morphine.”

Sackler, the lawsuit alleged, was a central figure in Purdue both before and after the launch of OxyContin and pushed the company to sell more pills and engage in a deceptive marketing campaign that greatly exaggerated the benefits of OxyContin use and substantially downplayed its risks.

“Purdue’s marketing of OxyContin was like an octopus: It reached into each different segment and level of the health care system and unfurled Purdue’s false, misleading and deceptive messages about the claimed safety and benefits of OxyContin,” Miller’s lawsuit says. “Purdue reached into Iowa health care providers’ offices, hospitals and clinics through its sales representatives and millions of pieces of mail, literature, and promotional items; it reached into Iowa’s legislative and health care regulatory bodies and boards; it reached into medical societies and associations; it reached into scientific and medical publishing; it reached into physicians’ medical education; it reached into patients’ lives directly through dissemination and distribution of patient ‘education’ and advocacy materials,  including through the internet.”

In 2007, Purdue and three of its top executives pleaded guilty to felony and misdemeanor criminal charges of misbranding OxyContin in violation of federal law. The company also entered into a civil consent judgment with 26 states and the District of Columbia over its marketing of the drug and agreed to limits on promotion and procedures to prevent over-prescribing.  Iowa was not a party to that multistate settlement agreement.

The lawsuit alleges that despite the plea agreement and consent judgment, Purdue continued to make false, unfair, deceptive, and misleading claims about OxyContin. 

THE IMPACT OF THE CRISIS

Opioids are the single leading cause of accidental death in the United States.  In 2017, 67.8% of the 70,237 drug overdose deaths in this country involved prescription opioids, according to the CDC.

From 2000 to 2018, 2,051 Iowans died of opioid-related deaths. Opioid pain relievers, such as oxycodone or hydrocodone, contributed to 60% of the overdoses in 2017, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.

In addition to deaths, Iowa has seen a substantial increase in both emergency and long-term care for people with opioid overdose and opioid use disorder. Substance use disorder treatment admissions for Iowans with opioid use disorder have increased from 653 in 2005 to 2,506 in 2015, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.

The rise in opioid use led many abusers to turn to heroin, fentanyl and other illicit drugs, fueling a five-fold increase in heroin overdoses nationally from 2010 to 2017. Heroin overdose deaths increased in Iowa more than 21-fold from 2002 to 2017, more than the rate nationally, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.

HOW TO GET HELP

If you or someone you care about is misusing opioids, visit YourLifeIowa.org https://yourlifeiowa.org/  for information, resources or live chat. Or call 855-581-8111 or text 855-895-8398 any time, any day.

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