New York sues Purdue Pharma, charging deception in marketing opioids

The state of New York is suing a major pharmaceuticals company alleging widespread fraud and deceptive marketing of opioids that have contributed to a national epidemic.

The lawsuit alleges Purdue Pharma, a drug manufacturer known for producing OxyContin, misled prescribers and patients about the risks of opioids, while intentionally understating the risks and overstating the benefits of the drugs.

Purdue also concealed the link between long-term use of opioids and abuse and addition, according to the New York attorney general’s complaint. The company also falsely claimed withdrawal symptoms from its products could be easily managed and even masked the signs of addiction by referring to them as “pseudoaddiction,” according to the lawsuit.

“Our investigation found a pattern of deception and reckless disregard for New Yorkers’ health and wellbeingas Purdue lined its own pockets by deliberately exploiting our communities and fueling an opioid epidemic that’s destroyed families across the state,” New York Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood said 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 multi-state investigation of opioid manufacturers and distributors across the country.”

Purdue allegedly spent more than $1 billion on a “sales and marketing blitz” targeting doctors, the lawsuit states.  

“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," Robert Josephson, executive director of communications at Purdue, told HealthExec in an emailed statement. "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.”

The lawsuit comes as the opioid epidemic has had a devastating impact on American communities. In 2016, 42,249 people died from overdosing on opioids, according to HHS. In New York, there were 3,986 deaths from overdoses in 2016, 2,399 of which were caused by opioid painkillers, including those sold by Purdue, according to New York state.

Over the last decade, pharmaceutical companies have seen their profit margins rise well above other industries, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.  The Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, cracked the top-20 list of America’s Richest Families by Forbes in 2015, coming in at $14 billion. Purdue has an annual revenue of approximately $3 billion, according to Forbes, mostly from the sale of OxyContin.  

“The opioid epidemic was manufactured by unscrupulous distributors who developed a $400 billion industry pumping human misery into our communities. In this year's State of the State, I pledged that we will hold these companies responsible for their reprehensible actions," New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said. “This lawsuit sends a clear message all these who mislead the public to increase their profit margins that we will hold you accountable for your actions."

The lawsuit also alleges that Purdue continued to engage in its deceptive marketing even after it pleaded guilty to criminal conduct in 2007 and making a pledge to correct its misleading marketing. The complaint aims to stop Purdue from engaging in deceptive, fraudulent and unlawful practices; disgorge money the company obtained as a result of violations of the law; and direct Purdue to pay civil penalties and damages to the state.

New York is not the only state to launch a lawsuit against Purdue; at least 26 other states and Puerto Rico have sued the pharmaceutical company over opioids, Reuters reported. Underwood and Cuomo announced they were preparing a lawsuit against Purdue in May, after the New York Attorney General’s office and a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general conducted a nationwide investigation into major opioids makers and distributors.