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Purdue Pharma says opioid lawsuit by Mass. attorney general amounts to ‘oversimplified scapegoating’

People whose friends and relatives have died from OxyContin and opioid overdoses leave pill bottles outside the headquarters of Purdue Pharma in Stamford, Conn., on Aug. 17.
People whose friends and relatives have died from OxyContin and opioid overdoses leave pill bottles outside the headquarters of Purdue Pharma in Stamford, Conn., on Aug. 17. (Jessica Hill/AP)
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Purdue Pharma says a lawsuit filed against the company by the Massachusetts attorney general amounts to “oversimplified scapegoating” that is not supported by the law.

In a recent motion to dismiss the case, Purdue says Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) has created a “sensationalist and distorted narrative that ignores facts” in the lawsuit she filed last year. It alleges the company disregarded safety and addiction and deceived patients and doctors to get them to prescribe and take high doses of OxyContin and looked the other way as overdose deaths linked to prescription opioids soared.

Purdue alleges that some claims made by Healey are contradicted by the Massachusetts Department of Health and the Food and Drug Administration, which approved the medication and its labeling. Purdue argues that Healey is putting forward a “misleading narrative” about OxyContin.

Healey’s office said it plans to oppose Purdue’s motion.

In the suit, Healey argues that Purdue encouraged sales representatives to push extremely high doses of the drug to boost OxyContin profits. Purdue counters that the FDA has approved various dosages of the medication, which allow doctors to easily tailor how much medication a patient is taking. Purdue said that the company has issued warnings about the side effects of high OxyContin doses and that it advises patients start with low doses.

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Purdue is making arguments that it has used in the slew of state and federal lawsuits filed against it in recent years, including that it controls just 2 to 3 percent of the market for opioid drugs. The company also says it is not responsible for overdose deaths from heroin and illicit fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid made overseas that has killed tens of thousands of people in recent years.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s statistics show a recent rise in fentanyl deaths, which Purdue said contradicts Healey’s assertion that painkillers are a leading cause of overdose fatalities. However, the spike in fentanyl deaths started in 2013 and does not account for the entirety of the opioid crisis, which began in the late 1990s.

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Purdue says that to prove her case, Healey must show that the company’s statements “caused individual prescribers to write prescriptions they otherwise would not have written, and that those prescriptions were improper or unnecessary.”

Healey’s office said it plans to oppose Purdue’s motion.

The attorney general paints a portrait of insatiable greed and disregard for suffering caused by painkillers in portions of the lawsuit, which made public Purdue’s internal documents and emails. Healey argues that eight members of the Sackler family, which owns Purdue, made choices that “caused much of the opioid epidemic.”

Purdue says in its filing that the Massachusetts suit “seeks to vilify Purdue and its employees and directors.”

In one portion of the lawsuit, Healey said an email from one member of the Sackler family referred to a federal prosecutor who reported 59 deaths from OxyContin in one state. Healey’s suit notes that another member of the Sackler family wrote to company executives: “That is not too bad. It could have been far worse.”

Lawsuit claims Sackler family disregarded safety, opioid addiction in Purdue push to profit from OxyContin

Purdue says the email was referring to a New York Times story about the abuse of OxyContin and the email writer was referring to “the nature of recent press coverage,” not the overdose deaths.

“Recognizing the weakness of its legal theories, the Commonwealth has resorted to the creation of a sensationalist and distorted narrative that ignores facts and mischaracterizes numerous e-mails and business documents,” Purdue’s lawyers wrote.

Purdue said it complies with all FDA requirements, particularly those regarding the marketing of the drug, which were put in place after a 2007 consent agreement. That year, Purdue paid $600 million in fines and its executives pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges for claiming the product was less addictive than other painkillers.

Healey says her lawsuit shows the Sacklers’ misconduct since the agreement was “knowing and intentional.”

One marketing opportunity Healey highlights is a Tufts University program that taught two unbranded curriculums in 2014; the Sackler family established a master’s level program in pain research and policy at the university with a monetary gift 15 years earlier.

In court documents, Purdue said it presented a program called “The OxyContin Crisis” to members of Tufts Health Plan as an effort to “address prescription medication abuse awareness and prevention” with various organizations, not as a marketing opportunity.