Amid Opioid Crisis, New York Joins Wave of States Suing Big Pharma
By Bethany Bump
New York is suing Purdue Pharma, the maker of a popular painkiller, for allegedly downplaying the risks and overstating the benefits of its opioid products, whose abuse has fueled a nationwide epidemic of addiction and overdose deaths.
In a complaint filed Tuesday in Suffolk County Supreme Court, New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood argued that the Connecticut-based drugmaker has been engaged in deceptive and illegal practices for decades in order to boost the sales of its opioid drugs, which include OxyContin.
When marketing its drugs to doctors and other providers, she argued, Purdue concealed the link between long-term use of opioids and addiction, falsely claimed that withdrawal from its products could be easily managed, overstated the risks of treatments other than opioids for pain, and misrepresented the extent to which opioids improve body function. Those actions directly affected prescribing, public opinion and consumption of opioids, she said.
"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," Underwood said. "We're now holding Purdue to account for this reprehensible and illegal conduct."
This is the first time New York has sued a pharmaceutical company for its role in the opioid epidemic, which killed more than 3,000 New Yorkers and nearly 42,000 Americans in 2016.
The complaint alleges that Purdue engaged in deceptive marketing even after pleading guilty to criminal conduct in 2007 and pledging to correct its actions, and after entering into an Assurance of Discontinuance with the Attorney General in 2015.
In addition, it alleges that Purdue:
* commissioned a massive sales force to visit or "detail" doctors to push its messaging
* disseminated branded promotional materials about its own products to prescribers and patients
* disseminated unbranded messaging, which referred to opioids more generally
* employed doctors who favored treating pain with opioids as "key opinion leaders" to support and perpetuate its messaging
* funded and influenced the content of organizations such as the American Pain Foundation
* sponsored and influenced the content of medical education seminars
Purdue said Tuesday that it shares the state's concern about the opioid crisis, but "vigorously denies" its allegations.
"The state claims Purdue acted improperly by communicating with prescribers about scientific and medical information that (the U.S. Food and Drug Administration) has expressly considered and continues to approve," the company said. "We believe it is inappropriate for the state to substitute its judgment for the judgment of the regulatory, scientific and medical experts at FDA."
Masses of Americans became dependent on pain relievers in the 1990s and 2000s, after doctors were incentivized to make greater efforts to treat chronic pain and opioid manufacturers saw an opportunity to market their products beyond just cancer treatment. But doctors say they didn't know -- or weren't informed -- just how addictive some pain relievers could be.
As addiction soon cut across all socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, states began tightening prescription monitoring programs in an effort to reduce "doctor shopping" for multiple pain prescriptions. That helped dry up the black market for pills, but fueled the market for cheaper and more volatile heroin. Today, the emergence of highly potent fentanyl in these illicit supplies has made overdoses more deadly than ever.
Municipalities, including cities, towns, villages, counties and states, have started suing drugmakers in recent years for their role in creating the crisis, hoping to use settlement money and damages to fund prevention, treatment and recovery programs. At least 26 other states are also suing Purdue.
"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," New York's complaint reads. "These harms include the loss of lives and the devastating emotional and financial effects on the loved ones and communities left behind, babies born addicted to opioids, adults unable to work, emergency treatment costs, law enforcement expenses, costs for overprescription and overuse of Purdue's drugs, costs of treatment for substance use disorders, medical examiner expenses, and foster care expenses, among many other costs."
The lawsuit seeks an order requiring Purdue to "abate the public nuisance and pay all costs of abatement," disgorge money obtained as a result of law violations and pay civil penalties and damages to the state. It also seeks an order prohibiting Purdue from engaging in deceptive, fraudulent, and unlawful practices.
(c)2018 the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.)