Pennsylvania sues Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma, says it targeted elderly and vets

"We are suing the giant, the pharma lord who created Oxycontin," Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at a Tuesday press conference.
Image: Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro at a news conference in Harrisburg on Aug. 14, 2018.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro at a news conference in Harrisburg on Aug. 14, 2018.Matt Rourke / AP file

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By Tom Winter and Rich Schapiro

The state of Pennsylvania has filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, claiming the Oxycontin maker fueled the state's deadly opioid epidemic through a deceptive marketing campaign that targeted the elderly and military veterans.

"We are suing the giant, the pharma lord who created Oxycontin," Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said Tuesday at a news conference.

"Purdue owes it to the thousands of Pennsylvanians who lost their lives to [drug overdoses] to stop making excuses and instead to take responsibility for their actions," Shapiro added.

The suit adds to the more than 1,600 claims against Purdue. More than three dozen states have sued Purdue over allegations that it aggressively marketed OxyContin while underplaying the drug's addictive qualities.

Pennsylvania is among the states hardest hit by the opioid epidemic. Roughly 5,390 Pennsylvanians died from drug overdoses in 2017 — more than any other state — and a majority of the deaths were caused by opioids, according to the 121-page lawsuit.

"Even when Purdue knew people were addicted and dying, Purdue treated patients and their doctors as 'targets' to sell more drugs," the suit says. "Tragically, each part of Purdue's campaign of deception earned the company more money, and caused more addiction and death."

Shapiro claims in the suit that Purdue supervisors urged sales staff to "focus on the geriatric population." The company also set up a website called exitwoundsforveterans.org, which "deceptively assured veterans that Purdue's opioids are not addictive."

The lawsuit also chronicles numerous cases in which Purdue sales reps allegedly continued to push the drugs after becoming aware that doctors might be over-prescribing them. In one case, according to the suit, a doctor told a Purdue employee that "there is a big abuse problem for oxy(contin) and maybe the best thing for him would be if they took his license away."

In another case, a doctor told a Purdue representative that he was "fed up" with patients "us[ing] him for meds" and "felt his opioid prescribing was spiraling out of control," according to the lawsuit.

But Purdue continued to call on him for more sales until that doctor was arrested and charged with over-prescribing opiates, the lawsuit says. Nine of the doctor's patients died of drug overdoses from 2016 to 2018, authorities say.

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In a statement, Purdue denied the allegations in the suit and said it will "continue to defend itself against these misleading attacks."

"The complaint is part of a continuing effort to try these cases in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system," the statement said. "Such allegations demand clear evidence linking the conduct alleged to the harm described, but we believe the state fails to show such causation and offers little evidence to support its sweeping legal claims."

The lawsuit was announced two months after Purdue and its owners, the billionaire Sackler family, settled a case with Oklahoma for $270 million. The company settled with Kentucky for $24 million in 2015.

More than 1,000 lawsuits against Purdue have been consolidated in a case expected to go before a federal court judge in Ohio this fall.

The drugmaker has vigorously denied the claims against it, even as it has been exploring the possibility of declaring bankruptcy.