On May 31st, Ohio State Attorney General filed a lawsuit against 5 leading opioid manufacturers for using fraudulent marketing regarding the benefits and risks of prescription opioid pain relievers to increase sales and thus fueling the state's opioid epidemic for record profit.
The 5 pharmaceutical companies listed as defendants in the lawsuit are Purdue Pharma ( sold OxyContin, Butrans, Dilaudid, MS Contin among other prescription opioids), Johnson & Johnson and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, its subsidiary ( sold Nucynta and Duragesic), Endo Heath Solutions ( sold Percodan, Zydone, Percocet and Opana), Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and Cephalon ( its subsidiary, which sold Fentora and Actiq) and Allergan ( sold Norco, Kadian and generic opioids).
According to his press release, DeWine purposely filed the lawsuit in Ross County as Southern Ohio was likely the nation's hardest-hit area by the opioid epidemic. This is the second lawsuit filed by a state after the state of Mississippi earlier this year and alleges that the prescription opioid manufacturers knowingly violated the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act and also committed Medicaid fraud by deceptively proliferating the prescription of harmful opioid pain relievers.
The factual allegations include defendants spreading deceptive and false statements about the benefits and dangers associated with long-term opioid use through both direct marketing and seemingly independent third parties, defendants targeting vulnerable patients and susceptible prescribers, defendants' unlawful marketing scheme continuing to devastate Ohio communities and cause substantial economic injuries to state agencies, defendants speaking through a small circle of pain specialists known as "key opinion leaders" (KOLs) selected and funded by these companies, among others.
The lawsuit claims that by the late 1990s, each of the five pharmaceutical companies began a well-planned marketing scheme specifically designed to convince both clinicians and patients that opioid painkillers should and can safely be used for the "compassionate" treatment of chronic pain despite lack of scientific evidence to support these statements.
At a press conference, Attorney General DeWine said about 2.3 million Ohioans were prescribed opioid painkillers last year alone and Big Pharma spent nearly $168 million in 2014 to persuade doctors to prescribe opioids to their patients suffering from chronic, debilitating pain. When asked about clinicians' role in overprescribing these medications, DeWine said that more fault rests with Big Pharma because he believes there was a concerted, long-term effort to convince doctors that opioids are the right treatment for chronic pain.
A spokesman for Purdue Pharma, one of the five defendants, stated that the company is committed to working in a collaborative manner to find optimal solutions to this public health crisis, while a spokeswoman for Janssen called the suit factually and legally unfounded, claiming that Janssen's branded opioid pain relievers are approved by the FDA and carry FDA-mandated warnings about the risks of using these medications. Teva, Endo and Allergan officials declined to comment.
Sales of prescribed opioids nearly quadrupled in the US between 1999 and 2015, according to CDC data, as did prescription opioid-related deaths in that same period of time. Several cities and counties have already sued Big Pharma over its role in the opioid epidemic. In February, four of the five pharmaceutical companies ( except Allergan) sued by Ohio state were also sued by 3 counties in New York, while Purdue Pharma was also sued earlier this year by the city of Everett, Washington which accused the company of gross negligence, seeking payment to cover the costs of handling the treatment of opioid use disorders in the community.