Washington, Seattle File Suits Against Opioid Maker

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By Paul Shukovsky

Washington sued opioid drug company Purdue Pharma L.P., alleging the company’s marketing was an “uncontrolled experiment on the American public” dedicated to profiting from the unproven proposition that opioids are effective at relieving chronic pain over the long term ( Washington v. Purdue Pharma L.P. , Wash. Super. Ct., complaint filed 9/28/17 ).

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson (D) filed the lawsuit Sept. 28 in state court. The suit begins with and builds on the premise that opioids are neither safe nor effective, and then targets an allegedly deceptive marketing campaign in which “Purdue systematically overstated the effectiveness of its drugs for treating pain long-term, understated the risk of addiction, and overstated the effectiveness of risk mitigation strategies.”

The lawsuit seeks civil penalties under the state Consumer Protection Act of $2,000 for each violation of the statute as well as unspecified damages, which Ferguson said in a Sept. 28 press conference would be “a very significant recovery.” The lawsuit comes as other states and cities have sued the makers of pain drugs for their role in the opioid abuse crisis.

“I don’t know how executives at Purdue Pharma can sleep at night,” said Ferguson, a rising star in the Democrat Party who in rapid-fire fashion has filed a series of high-profile suits addressing a range of social and policy issues including the alleged failure of hospitals to provide charity care.

Purdue Denies Allegations

The Connecticut-based drugmaker rejected the allegations from the Washington AG. “We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense,“ Purdue said Sept. 28 in response to a Bloomberg BNA email seeking comment. “We are deeply troubled by the opioid crisis and we are dedicated to being part of the solution. As a company grounded in science, we must balance patient access to FDA-approved medicines, while working collaboratively to solve this public health challenge.”

The suit specifically rejects any Purdue attempt to use FDA approval of its medications as a defense for what the complaint contends are not only violations of its Consumer Protection Act, but also constitute a public nuisance and common-law negligence. “Although the Food and Drug Administration has approved the sale of opioids, Purdue’s marketing of these drugs has exceeded the labeled use and does not shield Purdue from liability for its deceptive marketing or the public nuisance created by its business model.”

Joining Ferguson at the press conference was Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes. The city filed a separate suit Sept. 28 naming Purdue as the lead defendant, but it also targets other companies including Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Ltd.; Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Cephalon Inc.; Endo Health Solutions Inc.; and Allergan PLC ( Seattle v. Purdue Pharma L.P. , Wash. Super. Ct., complaint filed 9/28/17 ).

While the Seattle suit presents similar factual allegations involving deceptive marketing, it brings as an additional cause of action under the Washington Criminal Profiteering Act against Purdue, Janssen, Cephalon, and Endo. The act’s definition of criminal profiteering includes offenses such as knowingly presenting to a health-care payer a claim for a health-care payment that falsely represents that the goods or services were medically necessary, the suit says.

Alleged `Big Tobacco’ Tactics

The suit alleges the four companies, “borrowing a page from Big Tobacco’s playbook,” worked through third parties they controlled by funding doctors the suit calls “key opinion leaders,” and by funding “seemingly neutral and credible professional societies and patient advocacy groups (referred to hereinafter as “Front Groups”).

Among the entities named in the Seattle suit as so-called “Front Groups” are the American Pain Society, American Geriatrics Society, American Chronic Pain Association, American Society of Pain Education, National Pain Foundation, and Pain & Policy Studies Group.

“Manufacturing Defendants persuaded doctors and patients that what they had long known – that opioids are addictive drugs, unsafe in most circumstances for long-term use – was untrue, and quite the opposite, that the compassionate treatment of pain required opioids,” the Seattle suit says.

Pharma Industry Response

In response to a Bloomberg BNA request for comment on the Seattle lawsuit, industry association PhRMA (the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America) sent this Sept. 28 email: “PhRMA is unable to comment on legal activities involving specific companies. However, on the issue of prescription drug abuse, PhRMA is committed to working with health care stakeholders, policymakers and others to help address the current opioid crisis.”

PhRMA added that it is working with government partners to “develop a public-private partnership that will accelerate the development of non-opioid pain medications and new formulations of medication assisted treatment for addiction recovery.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Paul Shukovsky in Seattle at PShukovsky@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Brian Broderick at bbroderick@bna.com

For More Information

Text of the state lawsuit is at http://src.bna.com/sWC.

Text of the Seattle lawsuit filing is at http://src.bna.com/sWA.

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