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Missouri attorney general sues three opioid drugmakers over false claims, advertising

The state of Missouri filed suit Wednesday against three major drug companies, alleging they fueled the nation’s opioid epidemic with a campaign of false advertising and fake claims.

On the steps of St. Louis Circuit Court, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley said he would seek “hundreds of millions of dollars” in damages against Purdue Pharma L.P., Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc., and Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.

“These companies knew that the drugs they sell and market are highly addictive, even life threatening if misused. And yet they have engaged in a deliberate campaign of fraud to convince Missouri doctors and Missouri consumers otherwise,” Hawley said.

Last year, at least 712 people died in the bi-state St. Louis region after overdosing on painkillers or other opioid drugs, such as heroin, according to the anti-addiction group NCADA STL. Missouri’s case claims that the companies carried out a multi-year campaign to mislead doctors and patients, downplaying the addictive properties of opioid medications and generating billions in profits.

The state argues that drug makers falsely said people with symptoms of addiction are experiencing “pseudoaddiction” to opioids and that they should be treated by increasing the dose. In another claim, it argues that Purdue created a medically inaccurate “Opioid Risk Tool” to screen patients for their tendency to abuse the drugs, and misrepresented the benefits of non-drug treatments.

A spokesman for Purdue, the maker of OxyContin, denied the allegations listed in the Missouri suit, but said the company shares Hawley’s concerns about the opioid crisis.

“We are an industry leader in the development of abuse-deterrent technology, advocating for the use of prescription drug monitoring programs and supporting access to naloxone,” the statement read, in a nod to the overdose antidote most commonly sold as Narcan.

Endo, which makes Percocet and Opana, declined to comment. Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asked Endo to pull Opana ER from the market, citing the risk of abuse.

Janssen manufactures Duragesic, and used to make Nucynta and Nucynta ER as well.

“Janssen has acted appropriately, responsibly and in the best interests of patients regarding our opioid pain medications, which are FDA-approved and carry FDA-mandated warnings about the known risks of the medications on every product label,”  Janssen spokeswoman Jessica Castles Smith wrote

In addition, the suit alleges that the companies used third-party advocacy organizations, such as the American Academy of Pain Medicine, to disseminate the narrative that opioid medications were safe.

Dr. Steven Stanos, a Seattle-based pain physician who serves as president for the AAPM, denied that accusation.

“The Academy is an independent professional medical association governed by a Board of Directors,” Stanos wrote. “AAPM is not and never has been controlled by any outside third party organization.”  

Mississippi and Ohio filed similar cases earlier this year. Though the lawsuits have echoes of legal actions taken against the tobacco industry decades ago, these allegations may be harder to prove, said Kelly Dineen, a health policy expert at the Saint Louis University School of Law.

“Right now, I don’t think anybody has a smoking gun, in terms of proof that these drug companies were intentionally deceptive,” Dineen said. “The thing is, everybody’s looking for someone to blame for the harms we’ve seen.”

Omitted from the Missouri suit is Mallinckrodt, manufacturer of a generic form of oxycodone. The company agreed in April to pay a $35 million settlement following an investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB

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Durrie Bouscaren
Durrie Bouscaren covers healthcare and medical research throughout the St. Louis metro area. She comes most recently from Iowa Public Radio’s newsroom in Des Moines, where she reported on floods, a propane shortage, and small-town defense contractors. Since catching the radio bug in college, Bouscaren has freelanced and interned at NPR member stations WRVO, WAER and KQED. Her work has aired on All Things Considered, KQED’s The California Report, and Harvest Public Media, a regional reporting collaborative.
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