Pa. attorney general sues Purdue Pharma over opioid epidemic

Judge in opioid trial denies bias, refuses to disqualify himself
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Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro says Purdue Pharma is responsible for an opioid epidemic that has ravaged the state. On Tuesday, he announced that he had sued the pharmaceutical giant over it.

On average, 12 Pennsylvanians died of fatal drug overdoses every day in 2018 and 15 every day in 2017, Shapiro said. His lawsuit, filed on behalf of the state, alleges that Purdue Pharma misrepresented its opioid products as nonaddictive and appropriate for chronic pain.

“By misrepresenting and omitting correct, scientifically supported contrary evidence concerning their opioid product, Purdue offered a product that was materially different from what was purported to be in the marketplace,” Shapiro said.

Purdue Pharma denied the allegations and said it will continue to defend itself against “misleading attacks.”

“The complaint is part of a continuing effort to try these cases in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system. Such allegations demand clear evidence linking the conduct alleged to the harm described, but we believe the state fails to show such causation and offers little evidence to support its sweeping legal claims,” the company said in a statement.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong filed a lawsuit against the company in April. However, Shapiro said that Pennsylvania’s suit is the first to greatly detail how Purdue targeted his state with a sprawling sales force who made a half-million visits to doctor’s offices there since 2007, a rate higher than anywhere else in the nation besides California.

Allegations of deception

Shapiro argues that Purdue Pharma used three main tactics in its efforts to sell the painkiller OxyContin: driving up opioid prescriptions by bombarding doctors with sales visits; conducting a deceptive marketing scheme to redefine pain and mislead Pennsylvanians into taking more opioids; and ignoring the signs of addiction, instead telling doctors to just prescribe more.

He alleges that, in some cases, doctors who prescribed the highest amounts of OxyContin were rewarded with gifts, meals, luxury trips and even cash. He also claims that, during the course of his office’s investigation, they found detailed call notes from Purdue Pharma sales representatives that revealed they turned a blind eye to patients struggling with addiction, made deceptive statements and took in five-figure bonuses for selling the most drugs.

“Purdue ignored the safety of Pennsylvanians, some of whom died as a result of the illegal and suspicious prescriptions written by these doctors. Purdue took full advantage of the situation. They targeted doctors with unsavory practices, they lied to sell more drugs, and as a result, they pumped our commonwealth with as much Oxy as possible,” Shapiro said.

Purdue Pharma said the lawsuit ignored basic facts, particularly that OxyContin “represents less than 2% of total opioid prescriptions and it continues to be approved by FDA as safe and effective for its intended use” and that it is “in a class of medicines with the highest level of control by the US Drug Enforcement Administration.”

“We believe that no pharmaceutical manufacturer has done more to address the opioid addiction crisis than Purdue, and since 2000, we have pursued more than 60 different initiatives in collaboration with governments and law enforcement agencies on this difficult social issue,” the company’s statement read.

Lawsuit seeks a court order and restitution

The lawsuit seeks a court order for Purdue Pharma to stop promoting OxyContin as a safe and effective drug. It also wants the company to forfeit all profits derived from the alleged misconduct, restore money that Pennsylvania has lost fighting the epidemic, and pay the state for the costs of its investigation and prosecution.

Shapiro said Tuesday that between 2012 and 2016, opioid-related fatalities cost the state more than $142 billion, and that the average cost of each overdose was $9.6 million.

Pennsylvania is also seeking a court order that Purdue Pharma must pay civil penalties of $1,000 to $3,000 for each violation of the state’s consumer protection law, depending on the age of the victim.

The lawsuit against the pharmaceutical giant is the first legal action resulting from Shapiro’s office’s role in the investigation into the manufacturing, marketing, sale and distribution of opioids. The effort began in 2017 when Pennsylvania took part in a 41-state investigation into six opioid manufacturers and three opioid distributors.

Although the lawsuit names only Purdue Pharma, Shapiro noted that Tuesday’s legal action was just a “first step.” He said his office is committed to fighting the epidemic from “every drug dealer to every dirty doctor to every greedy pharmaceutical executive” and will continue to investigate.