The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new numbers on the opioid crisis, saying the number of overdose visits to hospital emergency rooms soared last year, the latest evidence the nation's drug crisis is getting worse.
AUSTIN — Attorneys general in six states filed lawsuits Tuesday against the maker of OxyContin and other pain medicines, for what the Texas attorney general called misleading marketing tactics that are fueling the nation’s opioid epidemic.
Texas’ lawsuit accuses Purdue Pharma, the privately held manufacterer of OxyContin, of violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act by aggressively selling its products “when it knew their drugs were potentially dangerous and that its use had a high likelihood of leading to addiction,” state Attorney General Ken Paxton said at a news conference here.
“As Purdue got rich from sales of its opioids, Texans and others across the nation were swept up in a public health crisis that led to tens of thousands of deaths each year due to opioid overdoses,” Paxton said.
Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota and Tennessee filed similar lawsuits Tuesday against the drugmaker with headquarters in Stamford, Conn. All were filed in state courts.
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► Jan. 30: As opioid crisis grows, judge aims for solutions, settlement
► Jan. 29: Opioid makers face hundreds of lawsuits for misleading doctors
Attorney General Pam Bondi in Florida added four more opioid manufacturers and four distributors to her state’s complaint: Endo Pharmaceuticals, which makes Percocet and Opana; Johnson & Johnson and some subsidiaries, which make Duragesic and Tapentadol; Allergan, which makes Kadian and Norco; Cephalon, which makes Actiq and generic opioids; and distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, McKesson and Mallinckrodt, which “failed to report suspicious orders while knowing these customers were filling an inordinate number of prescriptions.”
“We are in the midst of a national opioid crisis claiming 175 lives a day nationally and 15 lives a day in Florida,” Bondi said in a statement. She accused the companies of “profiting from the pain and suffering of Floridians.”
Purdue spokesman Robert Josephson said the company had hoped to resolve Paxton’s and the other states’ concerns without litigation.
“We are disappointed that after months of good-faith negotiations working toward a meaningful resolution to help the state of Texas address the opioid crisis, the attorney general has unilaterally decided to pursue a costly and protracted litigation process,” Josephson said in a prepared statement. “We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.”
In Tennessee, Attorney General Herbert Slatery alleged that Purdue violated a 2007 settlement with his state and “knew patients were dying from overdoses and that its drugs were being illegally sold to non-patients.”
Slatery led a 40-state probe of opioid manufacturers and distributors and said his state’s complaint was submitted in Knoxville under temporary seal to protect the confidentiality of information that Purdue provided to investigators.
The probe and talks with the company are continuing, said Leigh Ann Apple Jones, spokeswoman for Slatery.
On its homepage, Purdue has acknowledged the opioid epidemic.
“The prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis is a multifaceted public health challenge,” the message states, “and as a manufacturer of prescription opioids, we have a responsibility to join the fight. At Purdue we are committed to lead our industry in helping address our nation’s prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis.”
In February, Purdue said it was slashing sales staff and and would quit promoting OxyContin to health care professionals. The decision came as the industry battles an avalanche of lawsuits from individuals, cities, counties, states and Native American tribes related to an epidemic of opioid abuse.
The rate of opioid prescription has tripled in the United State since the 1990s and 1 in 15 patients treated with narcotics for pain management in U.S. emergency rooms becomes chronically dependent, Dr. Nicholas Lee, an Austin anesthesiologist, said earlier Tuesday at a legislative hearing here on potential new laws to combat opioid abuse.
“We understand the problem,” Lee said, also saying doctors sometimes write prescriptions for more pills than necessary, and patients share the excess medication with family and friends. As a result, physicians are cutting back on the prescriptions.
In his printed statement, Paxton accused Purdue of the following:
• Misrepresenting or failing to disclose the risk of addiction of opioids
• Misrepresenting that there is no “ceiling dose” of their opioid drugs, falsely representing that doctors and patients could increase opioid doses indefinitely without risk
• Making false, unsubstantiated representations about “pseudoaddiction,” and falsely representing to doctors that common signs of addiction in patients are actually signs that the patient needs a higher dose of opioid
• Falsely representing that Purdue’s abuse-deterrent formulation of OxyContin reduces the drug’s risks, including the risk of addiction
Opioids were the cause of nearly 42,250 deaths in 2016, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s five times higher than in 1999.
Paxton hinted at the possibility of filing additional opioid-abuse lawsuits but declined to say when or against which companies action might be taken. Texas’ civil suit does not request specific monetary damages but does ask for a jury trial.
Iniitially, he said the suit seeks to stop any further violations of the trade practices act. But he added that each violation carries a fine of up to $20,000.
In previous months and years, state officials in at least 16 states — Arizona, Alabama, Delaware, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and West Virginia — sued various pain-killer manufacturers and distributors for their roles in helping the opioid epidemic grow.
Tuesday’s lawsuits come about a month after a change-of-course from a federal judge in Cleveland who had been encouraging companies and states to settle hundreds of lawsuits local governments had filed alleging overuse of prescription opioid painkillers.
The judge has scheduled three trials in Ohio beginning next year.
In 2007, Purdue Pharma did not admit wrongdoing when it paid $19.5 million to settle lawsuits with 26 states and the District of Columbia after being accused of aggressively marketing OxyContin to doctors while downplaying the risk of addiction. Nevada, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas were part of that agreement. Florida and North Dakota were not.
Contributing: The Associated Press. Follow John C. Moritz on Twitter: @JohnnieMo