Wisconsin is one of five states suing OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma for damages and to halt alleged deceptive marketing of the widely prescribed opioid painkiller, Attorney General Josh Kaul announced Thursday.
The state’s court complaint alleges Purdue Pharma and its former president, Richard Sackler, broke state laws by making false and deceptive claims regarding opioids, including OxyContin.
That included a public bid to downplay the risks of opioid use, including the risk of addiction and the risk of overdose, to boost sales of the drug, according to the complaint. It seeks financial damages from the company as well as a halt to the alleged deceptive practices.
Purdue strongly denied the allegations in a statement, saying it will fight them.
Kaul said the suit emphasizes that the nation’s opioid crisis “was not inevitable” but in part a function of the company’s deception.
“The allegation is that Purdue, in part at the direction of Richard Sackler, sought to change the public perception of opioids,” Kaul said. “The goal of that was to sell more OxyContin and ultimately more opioids.”
According to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, Sackler is alleged to have said, at the OxyContin launch party, that “the launch of OxyContin tablets will be followed by a blizzard of prescriptions that will bury the competition. The prescription blizzard will be so deep, dense and white.”
The suit was to be filed in Dane County Circuit Court. Separate suits also were filed in Iowa, Kansas, West Virginia and Maryland.
Kaul said the suit alleges the deceptive practices were aimed not only at consumers, but at doctors and other health providers.
It alleges the company pushed an unfounded concept called “pseudo-addiction,” that people who appeared to suffer withdrawal symptoms from opioids simply needed more pills to treat pain, Kaul said.
“Purdue attempted to change the understanding of the medical community as to the risks of prescribing opioids. And the effects of that are clear — the number of opioid prescriptions over the last 20 years increased dramatically,” Kaul said.
Purdue Pharma said in a statement responding to the state’s lawsuits that it “will continue to defend itself against these misleading attacks.”
The company pointed to a recent decision by a North Dakota court to dismiss claims filed against Purdue by the North Dakota attorney general.
“These complaints are part of a continuing effort to try these cases in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system,” the Purdue statement said.
The suit is not the first against opioid makers in Wisconsin. Dozens of counties, including Dane County, previously sued makers including Purdue for downplaying addiction risks.
The company and three of its executives also were ordered in 2007 to pay a $635 million fine — then one of the largest pharmaceutical settlements in U.S. history — for misleading the public about the addiction risks of opioids.
During the 2018 campaign in which he defeated his GOP predecessor Brad Schimel, Kaul said the attorney general needed to boost efforts to respond to the opioid crisis — in part by holding the pharmaceutical companies accountable for their role.