Alleging that Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson and Endo Health Solutions misrepresented the risks about the drugs they manufacture and sell, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley filed a lawsuit last week accusing the drug companies of fraud. Missouri is now the third state to file litigation against the three manufacturers, joining the attorneys general of Ohio and Mississippi in their quest for retribution for what they say has been these companies’ fueling of the drug epidemic.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), over 33,000 Americans died of opioid overdose deaths in 2015, and opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999. With cash-strapped municipalities and police departments finding themselves overwhelmed by the crisis, along with the perception that drug companies are doing little to stop the opioid epidemic, public officials’ latest chess move is to focus on Big Pharma’s marketing tactics.
“Our state faces an urgent public-health crisis brought on by fraud,” Hawley said in a public statement. “Today, we begin to fight to put an end to this crisis as we fight for the thousands of lives endangered and lost to the opioid epidemic.”
Hawley’s sentiment echoed Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine when he filed a similar lawsuit in late May. “These drug manufacturers led prescribers to believe that opioids were not addictive, that addiction was an easy thing to overcome, or that addiction could actually be treated by taking even more opioids,” DeWine said on May 31 when he announced his state’s litigation against these drug companies. “They knew they were wrong, but they did it anyway — and they continue to do it.”
As of press time, none of the companies responded publicly to the lawsuits. In emails to several news organizations, a Purdue Pharma spokesperson denied the allegations, but said it “shared” Hawley’s concerns about the ongoing opioid crisis. Both Janssen Pharmaceuticals, the division of Johnson & Johnson that has been sued by the three states, and Endo, have emailed similar statements to reporters nationwide. Any public discussion about these companies’ opioid products, however, are difficult to find. Endo claims a “culture of compliance” within the corporate responsibility of its web site, but is silent about opioids other than reporting the result of clinical trials. Janssen does not mention its opioids targeted by the lawsuits within its site.
The one company that embroiled in this litigation that has claimed it is taking accountability is Purdue Pharma, which announced some new programs in the fallout of last year’s investigation by the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper had accused the company of misrepresenting the effectiveness of its sales representatives’ recommended dosage of OxyContin. Since that report, Purdue Pharma insists it is “learning from the past while focusing on the future,” and has launched several programs, including partnerships with law enforcement officials and funds to improve monitoring technologies of prescription data.
Nevertheless, to many analysts, these drug companies under question, along with their competitors, have largely walked away from taking responsibility for the crisis. Meanwhile, families have been shattered and local governments find themselves fronting the costs of the resulting social problems. One report last year suggested the social, health care and criminal justice system costs have cost society at least $78.5 billion.
Hawley’s announcement comes at a time when the political class has become increasingly vocal about opioids’ impact on their constituents. Earlier this year, Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri demanded data from five of the top U.S. opioid manufacturers, saying an investigation was warranted for what has been at least 200,000 overdose deaths since 2000. Although companies including Purdue Pharma said they were reviewing requests, little has resulted from McCaskill’s inquiry.
But Purdue Pharma symbolizes what the public perceives as the pharmaceutical industry’s meek response to the opioid crisis. These companies have all profited handsomely from the sales of these drugs, while cities and counties have borne the costs of the tolls drugs while too many parents have had to bury their kids. Purdue Pharma has constantly parroted the phrase, “OxyContin accounts for only 2 percent of the opioid analgesic prescriptions nationally, but we are an industry leader in the development of abuse-deterrent technology and advocating for the use of prescription drug monitoring programs.”
Repeating that statement, however, has done little to earn the reassurance and trust of families and public officials. It may be easy to ignore one of 100 loquacious U.S. senators, but as ExxonMobil is finding out, dodging the arsenal of states’ attorneys general and their staffs is a far more difficult task. If more states join Missouri, Ohio and Mississippi, these companies risk having even more of their dirty laundry aired, and will reap even more consumer backlash in the process.
Image credit: Adam from UK/Wiki Commons