April 23, 2019

VT files suit: ‘We’re going to war with big pharma’

Observer courtesy photo
Attorney General TJ Donovan announces a new state lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, the company that manufactures and markets the opioid painkiller OxyContin, during a press conference last week in Burlington.

Alan J. Keays

For VTDigger

When Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo approached reporters outside a Burlington courthouse last Wednesday afternoon, he didn’t mince words about the upcoming announcement.

“We’re going to war with big pharma,” the police chief for Vermont’s most populous city said.

Moments later, standing at a podium at the foot of the steps leading to the Chittenden County Superior civil courthouse along a busy Main Street, Attorney General TJ Donovan said the state had just filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, a private company based in Stamford, Conn.

The lawsuit alleges, and Donovan said Wednesday, that the pharmaceutical giant and producer of the opioid painkiller OxyContin had deceptively marketed the drug for years, leading to an opioid crisis gripping Vermont and the nation.

Vermont is at least the 23rd state to sue Purdue Pharma.

“The basis of our lawsuit is this: Purdue Pharma lied, they misrepresented, they fabricated, they deceived, and they spread falsehoods, and they made billions off of it and they created a path of destruction that the state of Vermont is still reeling from,” Donovan said.

“Purdue deceptively said that OxyContin and other opiates were safe and effective for long-term chronic pain,” the attorney general added. ”Purdue misrepresented by overstating the effectiveness of screening tools for preventing addiction and minimizing the risk of addiction.”

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for, among other things, the cost to the state of Vermont in responding to the opiate crisis as well as to help pay for that response into the future.

Donovan said the state is also going after its share of Purdue Pharma’s “ill-gotten” gains. According to the lawsuit, Purdue has “generated sales estimated at more than $35 billion since it launched OxyContin” in 1995.

“It’s time for corporate accountability,” the attorney general said. “That’s why we filed a lawsuit, to hold Purdue Pharma accountable today for the destruction that they brought to our state.”

Purdue issued the following statement last Wednesday in response to the lawsuit:

“We vigorously deny the state’s allegations. The state claims Purdue acted improperly by communicating with prescribers about scientific and medical information that FDA has expressly considered and continues to approve,” according to the statement. “We believe it is inappropriate for the state to substitute its judgment for the judgment of the regulatory, scientific and medical experts at FDA.”

The state lawsuit also seeks an injunction against Purdue Pharma from continuing its practices.

The filing does not specifically seek to have Purdue Pharma stop doing business in Vermont.

“We want Purdue to change the way they do business,” Donovan said.

Among those joining Donovan at the press conference were members of his staff, as well as Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, Police Chief del Pozo and Bob Bick, chief executive officer of the Howard Center.

“This is a crisis that was man-made, it was self-perpetuated,” Weinberger told reporters. “And I believe when the history is fully written, it will show that the actions of Purdue Pharma, misrepresentations and actions described by the attorney general, were, if not the leading cause, certainly one of the greatest causes of this crisis.”

The 96-page lawsuit filed last Wednesday was a long time coming.

In June 2017, about six months after taking office, Donovan announced that he was working with a coalition of attorneys general across the country to investigate the role of opiate manufacturers in the national addiction crisis.

Donovan said Wednesday that he did engage in settlement talks with Purdue, however, those negotiations failed to reach a resolution.

The state’s lawsuit specifically claims that Purdue Pharma violated Vermont’s consumer protection and public nuisance laws concerning the company’s marketing and promotion of opioids.

The lawsuit cites numerous figures and statistics to show the impact of the opiate crisis in Vermont, and Purdue’s role in it, including:

— In 2010, 482,572 opioid prescriptions were dispensed in Vermont, a state with a little more than 625,000 people. That number continued to rise, increasing by 2015 to 498,973, or a prescription to every 1.3 people living in Vermont.

— Drug-related fatalities involving opioids nearly doubled between 2012 and 2016. While the national average of opioid-related overdoses deaths in 2016 was 13.3 per 100,000 persons, the rate in Vermont was 18.4 — 38 percent higher than the national average.

— In Vermont, 90.6 percent of opioid-related fatalities in 2015 occurred in people who had controlled substance prescription histories.

— In describing Purdue’s market share of opioid prescriptions, the lawsuit uses Vermont State Employees’ health plan data to show the company’s opioids alone account for more than 55 percent of Vermont’s total opioid prescription spending, from April 2010 to June 2018.

— The filing also alleges that Purdue used “front groups disguised as independent patient advocacy organizations, paid spokespeople disguised as experts, and biased studies disguised as legitimate research to reach doctors and patients. All of this conduct needs to be exposed.”

The attorney general’s office has enlisted the assistance of an outside law firm, Cohen Milstein, to serve as co-counsel in the case.

The Washington D.C. firm was selected through a request for proposal issued by the state, and will receive a cut of any judgment or settlement, according to Deputy Attorney General Joshua Diamond.

To read the full story, click here.

Then he added, “I will also say, you should expect more lawsuits.”

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