Attorneys general in California, Maine, Hawaii and the District of Columbia on Monday filed lawsuits against Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, alleging it misled the public by downplaying the opioid’s addictive nature.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra accused Purdue and its former president, Richard Sackler, of helping to fuel a nationwide crisis by marketing OxyContin as safe despite knowing it is one of the most abused opioids in the country.
“Purdue Pharma and Dr. Sackler started the fire and then poured gasoline on the opioid crisis with practices that were irresponsible, unconscionable and unlawful,” Becerra said in a statement.
California’s lawsuit, filed on Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleges that Purdue and Sackler knew as early as 1997 that oxycodone-containing drugs like OxyContin have a high rate of abuse. But the company more than doubled its sales force between 1996 and 2002, with sales rising from approximately $48 million to nearly $2 billion in that time.
All the while, sales representatives promoted OxyContin “as a drug that was neither addictive nor subject to withdrawal symptoms, while minimizing its potential for abuse and addiction,” the attorney general’s office said.
More than 14,500 Californians died from prescription opioid drug overdoses between 2008 and 2017, according to Becerra’s lawsuit.
Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey accused Purdue of “deceptive marketing and relentless sales visits” that led to the state having the highest prescription rate in the country in 2012, at nearly 22 prescriptions for every 100 residents.
“Our complaint alleges that their unrelenting sales visits to doctors and deceptive practices led to a marked increase in opioid prescriptions, and a corresponding increase in the number of Mainers suffering from opioid use disorder,” Frey said in a statement. “Maine deserves accountability and redress from Purdue and the Sacklers.”
The Sackler family, which founded Purdue Pharma, has been named in a number of lawsuits, including one brought by the Southern District of New York earlier this year on behalf of more than 500 counties, cities and Native American tribes.
The family of philanthropists has sponsored prestigious exhibits and institutions across the country, including The Smithsonian, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harvard’s Sackler Museum.
In a statement on the Sackler Trust website, Theresa Sackler denied the “false allegations” that Purdue Pharma knowingly contributed to the opioid crisis. But she said the charity foundation would “temporarily pause all new philanthropic giving” in the wake of lawsuits.
Purdue did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. In a statement to The Los Angeles Times, the company denied any misconduct.
“Purdue Pharma vigorously denies the allegations contained in litigation against the company and will continue to defend itself against these misleading attacks,” Purdue said. The states’ lawsuits “are unable to connect the conduct alleged to the harm described,” the company said. “Instead, they have invented stunningly overbroad legal theories, which if adopted by courts, will undermine the bedrock legal principle of causation.”
Monday’s lawsuits follow dozens of challenges filed by cities, counties and states across the U.S. against Purdue and other drug manufacturers as the country grapples with rising drug overdoses linked to opioids.
Purdue in March agreed to pay $270 million to settle a lawsuit filed by Oklahoma. Reports earlier that month indicated the drug company was considering filing for bankruptcy to mitigate potentially significant liabilities from roughly 2,000 lawsuits.
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