Five Pharmaceutical Companies Sued in Response to Opioid Addiction Epidemic

Attorneys for Santa Clara and Orange counties have filed a complaint on behalf of the People of the State of California alleging that five of the largest opioid manufacturers—Purdue Pharma, Cephalon, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Endo Health Solutions and Actavis—deceived physicians and patients alike by exaggerating the effectiveness of opioids for the treatment of long-term, non-cancer pain and withholding information regarding the dangerous, addictive effects of the drugs. The complaint claims that there is no reliable scientific evidence for the benefits of opioids in this regard, and that the pharmaceutical companies were deliberately deceptive in order to increase their profits. As a result, according to the filed complaint, a rise in opioid addiction has led to a myriad of deleterious social effects in California.

“As District Attorney, I have the task of protecting the People of Orange County against false advertising and unfair business practices in consumer protection cases,” says District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. “We have charged these pharmaceutical companies for knowingly harming public health by waging a massive campaign to sell huge quantities of these dangerous drugs for profit.”

Santa Clara Assistant County Counsel Danny Chou adds, “Because of the deceptive conduct of these drug companies, millions of Americans have become prescription drug addicts and abusers. The result has been devastating: Broken families, skyrocketing medical costs, and rampant crime. Instead of taking responsibility for their deceptions, the companies have pocketed billions of dollars in profits. This lawsuit simply seeks to hold those companies accountable for the harms they have caused.”

The complaint alleges that the companies, in addition to implementing deceptive marketing practices in general, specifically targeted vulnerable groups such as veterans and the elderly when marketing opioids. According to the suit, the companies stated that addiction was rare when it is actually quite common, and touted benefits for which there is no evidence.

Several years ago, the DEA found Purdue responsible for fueling demand for OxyContin and exacerbating the drug’s dispersion as a result of its “aggressive marketing of [the drug].” The suit claims that Purdue continued their aggressive marketing practices regardless, and as a result dramatically increased their profits. OxyContin yielded $3.1 billion in revenue for Purdue in 2010, up four-fold from 2006, during which it accrued $800 million in sales.

If the suit is won, then the pharmaceutical companies will be required to pay restitution to those harmed by opioids, drastically change their marketing practices in the interest of transparency, submit to penalties, and address the social ills that opioid addiction has exacerbated, such as rising medical costs per person and the increase in crime rates.

Dr. Steve Feldman, a professor of Dermatology at Wake Forest University, was dubious of the merits of the case: “In my limited experience, I have not observed any pressure from any companies to prescribe narcotics to my patients. It seems like narcotics have been available as generics for a long time, so I am surprised there is much of a market for brand name narcotics. This doesn’t seem like a strong case.” He clarifies, however, that he is not a pain specialist, and as a result he “could be missing something.”

Others were more sympathetic to the filers; UC San Diego law professor Robert Fellmeth claimed that the California law being used was written for just such a situation, and that they were well within their rights to file a claim. “California is suffering disproportionately from this problem, so it is appropriate for this state to take up this hammer,” he says.

None of the representatives from the pharmaceutical companies responded to requests for comments.

The CDC describes the prevalence of opioid abuse as an “epidemic.” They released several statistics that support this claim:

  • The number of new opioid users in the United States increased by 104% between 2000 and 2010.
  • In 2010, there were 2.4 million opioid abusers in the United States.
  • Opioids are responsible for more deaths than cocaine and heroin combined.
  • In California, as many as 4,000 people die from opioids every year, which is twice the number of homicides in the state.
  • 1 in 5 doctor visits in the United States results in an opioid prescription.
  • An estimated 15% to 40% of opioid users are likely to develop an addiction.
  • Opioids generated $8 billion in revenues for pharmaceutical companies in 2010.
  • OxyContin, which is the number one opioid, generated $3.1 billion in revenue in 2010.

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