Pennsylvania has filed a lawsuit against pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma, claiming the company fueled the opioid epidemic through its sales of painkiller OxyContin, the state attorney general announced Tuesday.
The civil charges follow a two-year investigation into Purdue and other pharmaceutical companies that have for years given millions of Americans access to powerful opioid-based pain killers through doctors, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said.
Shapiro laid blame for the epidemic in part on Purdue's corporate structure and business conduct. He claims Purdue salespeople made more than 500,000 sales calls to doctors in Pennsylvania since 2007, more than any other state except California.
"The conduct is absolutely outrageous and unlawful," Shapiro said of the marketing used by Purdue. He noted that OxyContin was pitched as "non-addictive, appropriate for use for chronic pain and good for 12 hours."
The company for more than a decade allegedly violated Pennsylvania's consumer protection laws, he said.
"Our goal for this lawsuit is for the court to issue an order to prevent Purdue from continuing to promote these drugs," Shapiro said.
Purdue said in a statement that it "vigorously denies the allegations filed today in Pennsylvania and 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," Purdue 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."
Shapiro would not provide a monetary amount that Pennsylvania is seeking. However, he did say the state will seek civil penalties in the amount of all profits derived from OxyContin since 2007; the cost to the Pennsylvania healthcare system attributed to the OxyContin-fueled opioid epidemic; and up to $3,000 for each violation of the state's consumer protection laws.
The company says that the claims are part of an effort to try cases in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system.
Pennsylvania has been in a state of emergency since Jan. 10, 2018, when Gov. Tom Wolf deemed the scourge of the opioid epidemic a state health crisis.
More than 5,400 Pennsylvanians died from overdoses in 2017, according to a Drug Enforcement Administration report last year. That number constituted a 64% rise in drug deaths since 2015.
Shapiro's office two years ago joined with dozens of other states to investigate companies that make and distribute opioid painkillers. Several Pennsylvania counties have already sued drugmakers, and a federal judge in Cleveland is overseeing more than 1,500 lawsuits filed by local governments, American Indian tribes and others against the opioid industry.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says opioids, including prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and illicit drugs such as fentanyl and heroin, were involved in a record 48,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2017.