Novel Opioid Lawsuit Goes After Ad Agency

Massachusetts continues a trend of targeting not just drugmakers but the companies that helped them to promote their sales.

This 2019 file photo shows 5-mg pills of Oxycodone. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

BOSTON (CN) — Opening another new front in a “drug war” that seeks to hold a growing variety of secondary businesses accountable for the addiction crisis, Massachusetts filed a lawsuit Thursday against an advertising and communications agency that helped drug maker Purdue Pharma to promote opioids.

An enormous number of lawsuits have already been filed against the opioid drugmakers themselves, but plaintiffs have lately been expanding their sights to include supporting actors.

In February, consulting firm McKinsey & Co. agreed to pay $573 million to settle claims that it designed schemes to help “turbocharge” OxyContin sales for Purdue.

Other recent lawsuits have focused on drug wholesalers that failed to investigate suspicious orders. And electronic medical records company Practice Fusion last year admitted to participating in a criminal conspiracy and agreed to pay the U.S. government $145 million.

Filed in Suffolk County Superior Court, the new Massachusetts lawsuit was filed by Attorney General Maura Healey against Publicis Health LLC, a leading health care marketing firm. The company is part of Publicis Groupe S.A., a French conglomerate that had $11 billion in revenue last year.

“Responsibility for the opioid crisis runs across the industry, from Purdue and the Sacklers to consultants and partners like McKinsey and Publicis,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement.

Healey claims that Publicis collected more than $50 million over a decade for its efforts to get doctors to prescribe Purdue’s opioids to more patients, in higher doses, and for longer periods of time.

“They knew what they were doing was wrong, they knew it was making the opioid problem worse, and they kept cashing Purdue’s checks,” Healey said at a press conference Thursday. She accused the company of “unprecedented greed and exploitation.”

A spokesman for Publicis Health meanwhile called the action legally baseless, and said that the statute of limitations had run out. As first reported by Reuters, the spokesman defended the company’s work as “completely lawful,” and limited to implementing Purdue’s advertising plan and buying ad space.

Massachusetts tells it differently in the lawsuit, saying Publicis devised marketing techniques to combat doctors’ hesitancy to prescribe OxyContin, wrote thousands of unfair and deceptive emails to medical professionals, and developed strategies to counter the 2016 opioid prescription guidelines put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The firm also helped Purdue to target the most dangerous high prescribers and placed ads for OxyContin directly into patients’ electronic medical records, the suit claims.

“Publicis helped create a public nuisance of opioid use disorder, overdose, and death,” the complaint states. “By design, Publicis’s schemes worked to counter public health measures intended to reduce unnecessary opioid use, because more opioid use generated more profits for Publicis’s opioid clients.”

In an interview Thursday, Amanda Pustilnik, who teaches at the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital, noted that “the story of the opioid epidemic is often misrepresented as a story of irresponsible patients and over-prescribing doctors.”

But “this prosecution gets at the heart of the matter,” she added. “Patients and doctors were not, on average, irresponsible. They acted under the influence of a concerted plan of misinformation and over-promotion orchestrated up and down the supply chain for these medications.”

Pustilnik was also a senior fellow on law and applied neuroscience at Harvard Law School.

In addition to the public-nuisance claim, the suit alleges violations of the state consumer-protection law, according to Assistant Attorney General Jenny Wojewoda.

“We have not set a figure on damages,” Wojewoda added at the press conference. “But they are immense. It would certainly be a significant amount of money.” She then noted that the state had demanded $90 billion as part of the Purdue bankruptcy.

Since 2010 some 15,000 people have died of overdoses just in Massachusetts, according to the attorney general’s office.

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