Opioid epidemic

South Carolina filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma over allegations that the deceptive marketing of its pain medication OxyContin has worsened the state’s opioid crisis, becoming the latest state to sue makers of opioids for contributing to the national drug epidemic.

The lawsuit, filed in the Richland County Court of Common Pleas by South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson, accuses Purdue of violating the state’s Unfair Trade Practices Act, failing to comply with the terms of a 2007 settlement and creating a public nuisance by helping promote the use of opioids.

“Given my duty to the residents of South Carolina, my office is obligated to take action as South Carolinians continue to fall victim to Purdue’s deceptive marketing of its highly addictive opioid products without care for the lives and families it is jeopardizing,” Wilson said in a statement Aug. 15. “It has created a public health epidemic and imposed a significant burden on law enforcement and social services in our state.”  

The opioid epidemic has reached new highs over the past few years. In 2015, the United States saw the most number of deaths from opioids ever recorded with more than 33,000 people overdoses documented. Almost half of those deaths involved prescription opioids.

In South Carolina alone, more than 3,000 people died of prescription opioid overdoses since 2011. Opioid deaths in the state exceeded the number of homicides in 2015 while the number of infants born addicted to opioids quadrupled from 2000 to 2013.

The lawsuit says Purdue told doctors that patients who appeared addicted to opioids were “pseudoaddicted” and needed more opioids and that the drugs were more effective when used long-term. The company also said that patients receiving an opioid prescription from pain would not generally become addicted.

Purdue downplayed the risks while overstating the benefits of OxyContin to increase its market share and profits, according to the lawsuit.

“This suit seeks to hold Purdue accountable for creating this crisis and seeks remedies to stop its misleading, deceptive, and dangerous marketing tactics,” Wilson said. “While there is a time and place for patients to receive opioids, Purdue prevented doctors and patients from receiving complete and accurate information about opioids in order to make informed choices about their treatment options.”

The company’s newer, abuse-deterrent opioids were also targeted in the lawsuit. Purdue was accused of falsely claiming they were safer than other opioids and that the formulation did not stop oral abuse.

Multiple States Suing Purdue and Other Opioid Makers

South Carolina isn’t the first state to sue the makers of opioids over fraudulent marketing claims. Attorneys general in four states had previously filed suits against Purdue and other drug makers, including Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and Allergan.

In June, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley filed a lawsuit against Purdue, Johnson & Johnson and units of Endo International for fraudulently misrepresenting the serious risks of opioids.

His office said that the three companies carried out complex, multiyear campaigns to deliberately misrepresent the risks.

“They used bogus front organizations and fake research; they used fraudulent advertising and deceptive trade practices,” Hawley said at a June news conference. “And they repeatedly lied about the true risks of the drugs they sold.”

Those affected by the opioid crisis in the state spoke out against the companies.

“I was given an opioid prescription that I never should have been given,” Eddie Bunnell, a former opioid addict, said in a press release. “Now I’m speaking out about my addiction to show other addicts that they’re not alone. I care; Josh Hawley cares; and Missouri cares.”

Earlier this month, the deputy attorney general of New Hampshire also announced a lawsuit against Purdue after a two-year investigation found the pharmaceutical company committed several violations of the state’s Consumer Protection Act, Medicaid Fraud Act and other state laws.

Purdue Denies Allegations of Deceptive Marketing

A spokesman for Purdue denied the claims made by the attorneys general and reaffirmed the company’s commitment to fighting the problem.

“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 spokesman Robert Josephson.

However, part of New Hampshire’s lawsuit alleges that Purdue failed to report suspicious prescribing of opioids to authorities despite promoting its “constructive role in the fight against opioid abuse” and “strong record of coordination with law enforcement.”

It wasn’t until the state’s Board of Medicine specifically requested the information did Purdue provide a list of suspicious prescribers.