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Five more states sue OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma for opioid epidemic

Four of the states — Iowa, Maryland, Wisconsin and West Virginia — also sued the company's former president Richard Sackler.

Five more states filed lawsuits against Purdue Pharma on Thursday, bringing to 44 the total number accusing the OxyContin maker of fueling the nation's opioid crisis.

The suits — filed by the attorneys general of Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Wisconsin and West Virginia — allege that Purdue used deceptive marketing to boost the sales of the highly addictive opioid drug.

"This filing today represents another step forward to stop the senseless deaths and bring accountability to the system," West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said.

All but one of the states — Kansas — also sued the company's former president, Richard Sackler.

Sackler, who resigned from the company's board of directors in 2018, was a "central figure in Purdue both before and after the launch of OxyContin and pushed the company to sell more pills and engage in a deceptive marketing campaign," according to a press release from the attorneys general.

The Sackler family, which is a defendant in three other state suits, referred questions to Purdue.

"Purdue Pharma vigorously denies the allegations in the lawsuits filed today and will continue to defend itself against these misleading attacks," the Connecticut-based company said in a statement.

In a separate move Thursday, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum filed a new lawsuit against eight members of the Sackler family who served on the company's board, accusing them of siphoning "billions of dollars out of Purdue Pharma" and transferring it to themselves.

Rosenblum claims that in so doing the family "starved the company of cash, stifled its growth and left it unable to satisfy the enormous legal liability" they faced from "unlawfully marketing OxyContin," according to a press release announcing the suit.

“Twelve years ago, Oregon settled with Purdue for deceptively marketing OxyContin, and for blatantly ignoring the alarming rate of addiction that their drug was causing,” Rosenblum said. “Over the past decade, the destruction that OxyContin has caused has skyrocketed...The time has come to hold these members of the Sackler family personally responsible.”

The flurry of suits comes a day after the Pennsylvania attorney general announced he was suing Purdue, claiming it pushed OxyContin to such vulnerable populations as the elderly and military veterans while underplaying the drug's addictive qualities.

More than 1,600 lawsuits have been filed against Purdue in recent years as the opioid crisis has ravaged the United States. Between 1999 and 2017, almost 218,000 people died in the U.S. from overdoses related to prescription opioids, according to the U.S. Centers on Disease Control and Prevention.

Before Thursday, only attorneys general from Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts had named the Sackler family as defendants in their lawsuits. But legal experts said the number is now likely to increase.

"There is a lot more litigation to be had," said Andrew Pollis, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. "You will start to see lots and lots of copycat cases filed."

Purdue notched a victory Wednesday when a North Dakota judge granted the company's motion to dismiss a suit filed by that state's attorney general. "Purdue cannot control how doctors prescribe its products and it certainly cannot control how individual patients use and respond to its products, regardless of any warning or instruction Purdue may give," Judge James S. Hill ruled.

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem vowed to appeal the ruling.

Purdue drew headlines earlier in the week when it removed a sign bearing its name from the company headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut, leading to speculation that the company was trying to dissuade protesters. But a Purdue spokesperson says it was just an effort to reflect the reduced size of the company’s footprint in the building.