CONCORD, N.H. – The attorney general's office sued Purdue Pharma on Tuesday, alleging that the drug manufacturer has continued its deceptive marketing of OxyContin in a state that has been called the "ground zero" of the opioid epidemic.
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In a civil complaint, the state alleges that Purdue Pharma has downplayed the drug's risk of addiction, overstated its effectiveness, claimed it is nearly impossible to abuse and failed to report suspicious prescribers. It's the latest in a string of lawsuits by state, county and local governments accusing prescription opioid manufacturers of fraud and deceptive marketing.
The attorney general's office in New Hampshire has been investigating half a dozen drug companies and their marketing practices for two years. During that time, the opioid problem has continued to grow. Nearly 500 people died of overdoses in 2016 — a nearly ten-fold increase since 2000. In October, the deputy administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration called the state "ground zero" for the crisis.
"To defeat the epidemic, we must stop creating new users, and part of that is making sure these highly addictive and dangerous drugs are marketed truthfully and without deception and in such a way as not to minimize addiction risks or overstate benefits to patients," said Deputy Attorney General Ann Rice.
A spokesman for Cranbury, New Jersey-based Purdue Pharma said the company vigorously denies the allegations, though it shares New Hampshire's concerns about the opioid crisis and is committed to finding solutions.
"OxyContin accounts for less than 2% of the opioid analgesic prescription market nationally, but we are an industry leader in the development of abuse-deterrent technology, advocating for the use of prescription drug monitoring programs and supporting access to Naloxone — all important components for combating the opioid crisis," said Robert Josephson.
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In 2007, Purdue and three of its executives pleaded guilty to criminal charges for deceptive conduct, but the New Hampshire lawsuit alleges that it has continued the same practices. While the company has touted its coordination with law enforcement, in New Hampshire it provided a list of suspicious providers only when asked specifically by the state's board of medicine, the lawsuit states. And the names all came from the board's investigations or media reports, not from Purdue's sales data or information about its marketing visits.
According to the lawsuit, Purdue had four to six sales representatives who saw six or seven prescribers a day in New Hampshire from 2013 to 2015. One prescriber told prosecutors the message she received was that opioids were "safe, safe, safe, safe."
Purdue also told prescribers that patients who seemed to be misusing opioids were experiencing "pseudoaddiction," the lawsuit alleges. The company's marketing materials suggested that "illicit drug use and deception" might reflect untreated pain rather than addiction, thus encouraging physicians with potentially addicted patients to respond by prescribing more opioids, the state argues.
Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan lashed out at opioid drugmakers on Tuesday.
"The role that drug makers have played in contributing to the heroin, fentanyl, and opioid crisis that is devastating communities in New Hampshire and states across the country is abundantly clear," she said in a statement. "Through improper marketing of prescription opioids, drug makers have long been running a campaign of deception to mask how addictive these products really are.
Hassan said even though companies are fined "these issues continue to persist, and it is time for real change to reverse the tide of this horrific epidemic that stems in large part from the misuse and abuse of prescription opioids."
The New Hampshire case comes less than two months after Missouri's attorney general sued Purdue and two other pharmaceutical companies. Ohio's attorney general filed a similar lawsuit against five companies in May, and three district attorneys and the guardians of a baby born dependent on drugs filed a lawsuit in June against three companies in Tennessee.