Maryland joined four other states Thursday in filing charges against the owners and former directors of Purdue Pharma, maker of the opioid OxyContin, for their role in the epidemic that has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths nationwide.
The company engaged in a pattern of deceptive conduct, encouraging inappropriate use of opioid painkillers and fueling the opioid crisis, according to Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh.
Baltimore's top lawyer said the city would sue opioid manufacturers and distributors over the harms called by addictive pills, adding the weight of the jurisdiction hardest hit by the overdose crisis to the legal campaign to hold the pharmaceutical industry accountable.
The attorneys general in Maryland, Iowa, Kansas, West Virginia and Wisconsin allege that Richard Sackler, former Purdue president and board member, and other family members marketed and promoted the company’s opioid products to treat conditions for which they were unnecessary and not safe or effective. The products include OxyContin, MSContin and Dilaudid.
“The strategies allegedly used by Purdue and the Sacklers were calculated, misleading, and extraordinarily effective,” Frosh said in a statement. “According to the charges, sales were prized over safety, and sales representatives for Purdue referred to the highest dosage for OxyContin as ‘hillbilly heroin.’ In Maryland alone, thousands have died, many more have become addicted, and the costs to our state and its people have been staggering.”
The privately held Purdue Pharma is owned by members of the Sackler family.
Frosh alleged that the Sacklers violated the state’s Consumer Protections Act in downplaying the addiction risk and overselling the benefits to doctors, patients and others, all the while benefiting from the public’s heavy use of the opioids.
Opioid makers, including Purdue, paid nearly $9 million to patient advocacy groups and professional societies between 2012 and 2017 to support their efforts to dramatically expand use of the drugs for chronic pain, Frosh said. In the process, they obscured the risk of addiction.
Frosh also alleged they created misleading guides and websites and pushed sales representatives to promote the opioids by setting aggressive quotas.
Seven Sackler family members were named in the action in Maryland, and Frosh said the company could be added to the case soon.
A lawyer for the Sacklers did not respond to a request for comment. But Purdue denied allegations in the suits and said it will defend itself.
“These complaints are part of a continuing effort to try these cases in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system,” the company said in a statement. “The states cannot link the conduct alleged to the harm described, and so they have invented stunningly overbroad legal theories, which if adopted by courts, will undermine the bedrock legal principle of causation.”
Each state filed its case independently. In Maryland, Frosh filed administrative charges that allow the state to more quickly bring the charges against the family members before an administrative law judge than in a traditional court. That means the case could be heard in as little as three months, rather than a year or more. Frosh is seeking financial penalties and orders for the company to change its tactics.
The number of overdose deaths statewide exceeded 2,000 in 2018, with the majority attributed to opioids, according to the Maryland Department of Health. The number of deaths attributed to prescription opioids has been declining, as the number linked to illicit opioids has gone up. Most deaths are now related to fentanyl, an opioid far more powerful than heroin.
New York also sued Purdue Pharma earlier this month, joining most other states in suing Purdue or other pharmaceutical companies they allege played a role in the epidemic. Results so far have been mixed. Purdue settled with Oklahoma in March for $270 million, but a suit in North Dakota was dismissed recently.
“The [North Dakota] court cut through the allegations that Purdue caused the opioid crisis, noting that the state ‘completely fails’ to allege how Purdue’s marketing actually caused the financial damage claimed by the state,” Purdue noted in its statement.
The statement said the company expected the latest cases to be dismissed, as well.
Even if the state prevails, Frosh said, it won’t solve the addiction and overdose crisis. Nor will his office’s actions against doctors accused of overprescribing opioids or dealers selling opioids. Last year, Frosh also accused Insys Therapeutics, maker of a fentanyl spray, of violating consumer protection laws.
“We want to hold them accountable for the crisis we alleged they’ve helped cause,” he said. “But I don’t think if you took the net worth of all the manufacturers and added it up that you could compensate adequately for the damage that’s been done. … Ultimately, this isn’t a law enforcement issue. It’s a public health problem.”