Purdue Pharma agreed to pay $270 million to Oklahoma to settle allegations they helped create the nation’s opioid crisis.
WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. – New York Attorney General Letitia James on Thursday announced what she called the nation’s most extensive lawsuit against the manufacturers of the opioid crisis, including the Sackler family and its company, Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin.
In its lawsuit, the Attorney General’s Office accuses six national prescription opioid manufacturers, the Sackler family, and four national prescription drug distributors of using deceptive marketing and unlawful diversion of drugs to profit off the pain of opioid addiction.
“They put profit over patients,” James said in a blistering attack at a news conference Thursday. “This is an extensive lawsuit that leaves no stone unturned. This lawsuit breaks new ground.”
The complaint amended New York’s lawsuit filed last year that accused Purdue Pharma of fraud and deceptive marketing in pushing addictive painkillers that ignited an epidemic killing thousands across the country.
Purdue executives disputed claims in the amended complaint, citing how the drugs were approved by federal regulators and prescribed by medical professionals.
“Purdue Pharma and the individual former directors of the company vigorously deny the allegations in the New York State Attorney General’s amended complaint, and will continue to defend themselves against these misleading allegations,” company officials said.
“The public announcement of the amended complaints is part of a continuing effort to try these cases in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system,” they added.
James said her office is seeking “meaningful remedy” for the families who are challenged by the opioid crisis, including financial penalties and payments from the drug companies as a punishment and deterrent.
The new lawsuit included the first claims accusing Purdue and the Sackler family of trying to shield drug profits from the mounting opioid lawsuits across the country, James said, describing the Sacklers as the family enterprise behind the crisis.
“The family that literally profited off the suffering and death of the countless New Yorkers,” James said, adding the Sacklers are estimated to be worth several billion dollars.
“As Purdue sold more and more opioids, the Sackler family transferred more and more and more wealth to their personal accounts,” James said.
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The attorney general noted the family’s fraudulent attempts to shield the money from potential payouts are ongoing.
“They continue to move funds into trusts and, yes, offshore accounts to be out of the reach of any potential recovery, or out of the reach of the long arm of government and law enforcement,” James said.
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Gregory Joseph, the lawyer for several members of the Sackler family, declined to comment on the case.
The lawsuit also accused opioid distributors, including Cardinal Health and Rochester Drug Cooperative Inc., of buying painkillers in bulk from the manufacturers and flooding communities with dangerous drugs.
The alleged fraud involved distributors improperly selling hundreds of millions of pain pills to pharmacies and other licensed dispensers.
The drugs were allowed to keep flowing despite repeated internal warning signs and complaints at some of the companies, James said, and taxpayers paid for many of the drugs through programs such as Medicaid.
These systemic failures led to massive shipments of opioids to specific pharmacies in New York that showed numerous “red flags,” such as a high percentage of prescriptions paid for in cash or written by a relatively small number of providers who have been charged with, or convicted of, illegal prescribing.
“It has become quite clear that many of these prescriptions were not medically necessary, and the state was duped into covering them,” James said.
The lawsuit also accused manufacturers of using a “playbook” to mislead the public about the safety, efficacy, and risks of their prescription opioids.
Manufacturers pushed claims that opioids could improve quality of life and cognitive functioning, promoted false statements about the non-addictive nature of these drugs, the lawsuit claims.
The companies also utilized a vast network of sales representatives to push these dangerous narratives, the lawsuit added, and to target susceptible doctors, flood publications with their deceptive advertisements, and offer consumers discount cards and other incentives to entice them to request treatment with their products.
The lawsuit comes as New Yorkers continue to struggle with fallout of the opioid epidemic, which ignited a drug crisis fueled by the flood of heroin and fentanyl across the country.
After 10 drug-related deaths this month, Broome County in New York’s Southern Tier declared a state of emergency Wednesday as authorities battled a suspected spike in fentanyl, a powerful synthetic that is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine.
“Broome County is under attack from a deadly form of fentanyl,” District Attorney Steve Cornwell said.
After opioid addiction spread unchecked for more than 15 years, opioid litigation started as a trickle but reached a flood in 2017 when about 250 cities, counties and states sued opioid makers, wholesalers, distributors and marketers, USA TODAY Network reported.
Many of the lawsuits accused the companies of misleading health care professionals and the public by marketing opioids as rarely addictive and a safe substitute for non-addictive pain medications, such as ibuprofen.
The companies deny the claims and say litigation should be halted until the Food and Drug Administration-ordered studies on the long-term risks and benefits of opioids are completed.
Experts say the sheer number of opioid lawsuits could lead some companies to settle. For example, Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family this week reached a $270 million settlement with Oklahoma.
Further, New York’s expanded lawsuit comes as Purdue has said it is considering filing for bankruptcy under the crush of lawsuits, a move that would pause litigation.
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