DES MOINES — Iowa joined a multistate consumer fraud legal battle Thursday by suing Purdue Pharma and its former corporate leader, alleging the drug company helped stoke the nation’s opioid crisis by engaging in unfair and deceptive practices in marketing the highly addictive OxyContin painkiller.
“Purdue Pharma is responsible for a public health crisis that has profoundly affected patients, their families, our communities and our health care system,” Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller told a news conference where he announced that Iowa and four other states were suing to block “devastating” marketing practices and recover drug money paid by Iowans.
Iowa’s lawsuit, filed in Polk County District Court, names Purdue Pharma and its former president and chairman, Richard Sackler. It seeks restitution and civil penalties under Iowa’s Consumer Fraud Act.
The suit asserts that Purdue, and its related companies Purdue Frederick Co., Purdue Pharmaceuticals and P.F. Laboratories, repeatedly made false and deceptive claims that OxyContin was safe and suitable for a range of pain patients.
Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that Connecticut-based Purdue claimed that OxyContin posed only a low risk of addiction; that symptoms of addiction were only “pseudo-addiction” indicating the need for more opioids; that long-term opioid use improved patients’ quality of life; and that opioids were suitable for vulnerable groups such as elderly patients and veterans.
From 1999 to 2017, nearly 218,000 people nationwide died from overdoses related to prescription opioids, the U.S. Centers on Disease Control and Prevention found. From 2000 to 2018, 2,051 Iowans died of opioid-related complications, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.
“The company and its executives were recklessly indifferent to the impact of their actions, despite ever-mounting evidence that their deceptions were resulting in an epidemic of addiction and death,” Miller said Thursday.
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The five states that filed separate lawsuits Thursday — Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, West Virginia and Wisconsin — join 39 other states in suing Purdue.
The lawsuit alleges that Sackler played a key role in developing and disseminating Purdue’s deceptions about OxyContin’s risk. Sackler, of Riviera Beach, Fla., has served many roles with Purdue starting in 1971, including as its president from 1999 through 2003. He took a seat on the board of directors in 1999 and became co-chair in 2003, a position he held until resigning in 2018.
In laying out a timeline, Miller said the lawsuit alleges Purdue introduced OxyContin — a drug twice as potent as morphine — in 1996 but did not conduct abuse liability studies before rushing it to market.
Sackler, the lawsuit alleges, pushed the company to sell more pills and engage in a deceptive marketing campaign that greatly exaggerated the benefits of OxyContin use and substantially downplayed its risks.
“Purdue’s marketing of OxyContin was like an octopus: It reached into each different segment and level of the health care system and unfurled Purdue’s false, misleading and deceptive messages about the claimed safety and benefits of OxyContin,” Miller’s lawsuit says.
Before 1996, opioids were used sparingly and were considered a drug of last resort, Miller noted. He said there are other drugs equally effective in reduction of pain without the addiction.
Miller said the lawsuit probably will be expanded to include more Sackler family members because, while the pharmaceutical company has assets, “a lot of money” has been distributed to family members.
In addition to injunctive relief, the suit seeks restitution of all the money that Iowans paid for the product since the company started selling in 1996. Miller did not have an estimate of the potential financial damages for Iowans but told reporters, “it’s going to be very significant.”
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He noted Oklahoma recently reached a “terrific settlement” resulting in $270 million in damages paid by Purdue and Sackler family.
In 2007, Purdue and three of its top executives pleaded guilty to felony and misdemeanor criminal charges of misbranding OxyContin in violation of federal law. The company also entered into a civil consent judgment with 26 states and the District of Columbia over its marketing of the drug and agreed to limits on promotion and procedures to prevent overprescribing. Iowa was not a party to that settlement.
The new lawsuit alleges that despite the agreement, Purdue continued to make unfair, deceptive and misleading claims about OxyContin.
Besides an increase in opioid-related deaths, Iowa — like the nation — has seen a sharp rise in treatment. Admissions for Iowans with opioid use disorder have increased from 653 in 2005 to 2,506 in 2015, the state health officials said.
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