Pennyslvania sues maker of OxyContin, 'jet fuel' of America's opioid crisis

Adrian Horton

Dr Jeffrey Bado received his first sales visit from a Purdue Pharma representative in September 2005. In the next five years, his prescriptions of OxyContin – the “jet fuel” of America’s opioid crisis, according to Pennsylvania’s attorney general – increased by 600%, as Purdue reps visited two to three times a week. Now, a lawsuit in the state seeks to hold the company accountable.

The lawsuit, filed 2 May by the state attorney general, Josh Shapiro, and announced on Tuesday, accuses Purdue Pharma, the Connecticut-based maker of OxyContin, of deceptive marketing and criminal negligence in pushing doctors to prescribe the opioid.

“We’ve lost lives, we’ve lost money and we’ve squandered opportunity,” said Shapiro in a press conference Tuesday. Meanwhile, opioids have been a “goldmine” for Purdue, which has made more than $35bn in revenue since OxyContin was released in 1996, he said. “While Purdue and its executives were profiting and lining their own pockets, they were leaving a path of loss, heartache and bills for someone else in Pennsylvania to pay,” he added.

Pennsylvania’s suit follows a wave of legal action against the pharmaceutical giant, and in some cases, certain members of the multibillionaire Sackler family, who own the company. More than three dozen states have sued Purdue for underplaying the risks of addiction, and a consolidation of 1,500-plus lawsuits filed by US cities and counties is currently playing out in a federal courthouse in Cleveland.

Related: Meet the Sacklers: the family feuding over blame for the opioid crisis

Pennsylvania’s lawsuit, however, is the first to allege in detail a prolific and calculated scheme of pushing drugs on prescribers – a ruthlessly profitable “marketing blitzkrieg” targeting doctors such as Bado, who was convicted of fraud and drug distribution felonies in 2016. According to the complaint, Pennsylvania, one of the hardest-hit states in the opioid crisis, received half a million sales visits by Purdue reps since 2007 – the highest of any state except California.

The complaint outlines a multi-pronged promotion strategy from Purdue involving unrelenting sales calls; branded and unbranded promotion; paying select “key opinion leaders” to make seemingly unbiased endorsements of Purdue products; and targeting its marketing efforts to vulnerable patient groups, such as the elderly and veterans.

The complaint also alleges that Purdue knew of OxyContin’s high addiction risk but continued to misrepresent or minimize it. Shapiro singled out Purdue’s propagation of the term “pseudoaddiction”, a condition it says the company invented to encourage more opioid prescriptions despite evidence of full-blown addiction.

“The conduct is absolutely outrageous and unlawful,” said Shapiro.

Purdue said in a statement that it “vigorously denies the allegations filed today in Pennsylvania” and called the allegations “misleading attacks” that are “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,” it said.

Shapiro said his office’s efforts were on behalf of those lost to addiction – 12 Pennsylvanians every day in 2018, according to the CDC – and the loved ones left behind.

Asked in a subsequent press call if he intended to add the Sacklers in name to the suit, Shapiro declined to outline future plans. But he added: “We are not done here. This lawsuit is just the first step.”