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NJ sues Sackler family over toll of prescription opioids

TRENTON, NJ – Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal announced Thursday that the State has filed a lawsuit against eight members of Purdue Pharma’s founding Sackler family, alleging that their greed-driven opioid marketing and sales strategy fomented the opioid crisis that continues to claim lives in New Jersey and across the nation.

The state’s complaint, filed Thursday in Superior Court in Essex County, accuses the Sackler defendants of seeking to become unimaginably rich by deceptively promoting their company’s opioid pain medications as rarely addictive, seeking to flood the market with Purdue’s opioid pain products by encouraging risky prescribing practices, and by targeting vulnerable new patient populations such as the elderly.

The complaint specifically alleges that each Sackler defendant named in the lawsuit helped direct and took part in a widespread campaign to deceive doctors and other caregivers with prescribing authority about the risks and benefits of Purdue’s marquee opioid pain relief drug, OxyContin, as well as other dangerously addictive opioid pain medications made and sold by Purdue and prescription opioids generally.

“The Sackler family built a multi-billion-dollar drug empire based on addiction,” said Attorney General Grewal. “Despite knowing the harms that would result, the Sacklers drove Purdue to pursue deceitful sales campaigns for OxyContin and other highly addictive opioid painkillers, campaigns that were dutifully carried out by a small army of the company’s employees. Our communities are still reeling from the epidemic of addiction and overdose deaths caused by their misconduct.”

Sackler defendants named in today’s four-count lawsuit include former Purdue CEO and President Dr. Richard S. Sackler, who also served as Purdue’s head of research and development for nearly a decade; Jonathan D. Sackler; Dr. Kathe Sackler; Ilene Sackler Lefcourt; Mortimer D.A. Sackler; Beverly Sackler; Theresa Sackler; and David A. Sackler.

Each of the defendants sat on the Purdue Pharma Board of Directors for many years – including some who served for the better part of three decades – before leaving the Board in 2017 or 2018.

The State’s complaint lays out a callous plan by the Sacklers to use deception and misinformation to turn the medical community – and the public –away from the prevailing view that opioids were so potent and potentially addictive that they should be prescribed sparingly.

The misinformation campaign worked, the complaint asserts, and the Sacklers managed through intensive marketing and high-pressure sales tactics to replace the old wisdom with a new mindset: that pain was an under-recognized and undertreated health care problem, and that opioids should be the first line of treatment for patients suffering from such chronic conditions as moderate back pain, migraine headaches and arthritis.

“During their reign as controlling members of the Purdue Board of Directors, the Sacklers were not satisfied with merely raking in millions and millions of dollars. They wanted billions,” said Attorney General Grewal. “They cared more about money than they cared about patients, the public or the truth. So they pushed, on a near daily basis, to have more patients consuming more opioids at higher doses and for longer periods of time. To the detriment of all of us, they succeeded on a grand scale. Now it’s time to hold them accountable.”

Purdue Pharma makes a variety of opioid pain medications including Butrans and Hysingla ER. However, the company’s most popular opioid pain medication by far has been OxyContin. Starting with the market debut of OxyContin in 1996, Purdue generated overall sales estimated at more than $35 billion.

The company’s current annual revenues are estimated at approximately $3 billion, mostly from the sale of OxyContin.

The lawsuit filed today alleges that, under the Sackler defendants’ direction, Purdue aggressively and deceptively marketed its opioid drugs – particularly OxyContin – for the long-term treatment of chronic pain.

The suit also alleges that Purdue failed to disclose it had no studies to support most of its promotional claims – for example, that opioids were not very addictive, that addiction risks were easily managed, opioids continued to be effective when used for treatment periods lasting many months and years, and that long-term opioid usage improved patients’ daily function and quality of life.

The State’s lawsuit includes three counts of violating the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act and one count of violating the State’s False Claims Act.

The complaint seeks monetary damages for false claims, maximum statutory penalties under the Consumer Fraud Act and the False Claims Act, disgorgement of any ill-gotten gains, and other relief as contribution for the costly solutions – including addiction treatment and prescriber education – required to abate the opioid crisis in New Jersey.

According to the complaint, the State’s largest Medicaid managed care organization paid $109 million for opioids – much of it based on false claims caused by the defendants’ misconduct – through the Medicaid program between 2008 and 2017.

The State paid another $6 million under its Workers’ Compensation Program during the same time span, and approximately $136 million under its State Employee and Retiree Health Plans between 2012 and 2017. The bulk of those expenditures were for Purdue opioids, the complaint alleges.

Today’s complaint contends the Sacklers sought to change the U.S. health care landscape concerning opioids in the late 1990s. Faced with a medical and popular understanding of opioids that constrained their market, the complaint alleges, Purdue aggressively set out to change the image of opioids by encouraging prescribers to believe the drugs were appropriate for routine, unsupervised and extended long-term use.

The complaint alleges that part of the Sacklers’ strategy to mainstream their company’s opioid products was to enlist the backing of high-profile experts such as Dr. Russell Portenoy – a pain management specialist – by retaining him as a Purdue consultant.

Purdue’s deceptive marketing of OxyContin led to criminal fraud charges against the company and its executives, charges that Purdue paid more than $600 million to settle with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2007. But rather than redirect the company’s opioid marketing course, the Sacklers built upon the same deceptions for which Purdue had been prosecuted, and continued their unconscionable marketing tactics from 2007 through 2017, the lawsuit alleges.

Among other actions in that period, the complaint charges that Purdue under the direction of the Sacklers:

  • Deployed hundreds of sales representatives trained to emphasize the benefits of opioids, minimize their risks, deflect questions about addiction risks, and encourage doctors to consult unbranded websites and materials that did the same. All told, Purdue sales representative visited New Jersey doctors nearly 240,000 times in the 10-year period from 2007 through 2017.
  • Funded and created “unbranded” educational materials and websites that never identified Purdue products by name because they were deceptively designed to look like the work of unaffiliated patient advocacy groups. These unbranded materials amplified and supported Purdue’s deceptive marketing scheme.
  • Promoted the unsubstantiated concept of “pseudo-addiction” to assure doctors that patients showing signs of addiction were actually suffering from undertreated pain and needed more medication.
  • Refused to acknowledge that OxyContin ER does not provide 12 hours of constant pain relief, despite widely reported end-of-dose failure.
  • Ignored a growing body of research that linked long-term use of opioids to addiction, as well as a variety of health problems.

In the complaint, it is also alleged that in 2011, defendant Dr. Richard Sackler – who served as Co-Chairman of Purdue’s Board of Directors at the time – demanded to spend a week in the field with Purdue’s sales representatives.

Concerned about sales figures that were not up to expectations, the complaint notes, Richard Sackler wanted to “shadow” company sales reps – at a rate of two per day – to ensure they were on message and focusing their opioid sales pitches on physicians who had already established a track record of being among “the highest prescribing doctors.”

According to internal e-mails cited in the Complaint, a Purdue vice-president (not a Sackler) reacted to this idea by writing the company’s compliance department and expressing his concern that Richard Sackler in the field promoting opioids was “a potential compliance risk.”

The email reply from compliance read simply: “LOL.” In another e-mail related to the same request, a Purdue staffer wrote that, “Richard needs to be mum and anonymous.”

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By: Jay Edwards Follow on Twitter | Like on Facebook

(Photo: Courtesy New Jersey Attorney General’s Office)

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