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Wednesday 16 October 2019

New York sues billionaire family behind maker of OxyContin

The state expanded an existing lawsuit against pill maker Purdue Pharma.

OxyContin pills (Toby Talbot/AP)
OxyContin pills (Toby Talbot/AP)

By Michael R. Sisak and Jennifer Peltz

New York is suing the billionaire family behind the company that created OxyContin, joining a growing list of state and local governments seeking to hold not only the firm but its owners accountable for the nation’s opioid crisis.

The state, which averages nine opioid-related deaths per day, on Thursday expanded an existing lawsuit against pill maker Purdue Pharma to add members of its controlling Sackler family as defendants.

Five other companies that produce opioid painkillers and four drug distributors, which buy medications in bulk and sell them to pharmacies, were also added as defendants.

“This is an extensive lawsuit that leaves no stone unturned,” New York attorney general Letitia James said at a news conference.

While other states and localities have filed similar suits, New York is taking some novel approaches, such as seeking to bar the companies from marketing and distributing painkillers in New York unless they abide by strict safeguards.

The suit claims drug manufacturers collaborated to falsely deny the serious risks of opioid addiction, and it accuses drug distributors of saturating the state with opioids while overlooking red flags.

But at the heart of the case are Purdue and the Sacklers, whom Ms James called “the masterminds behind this crisis”.

The suit, like others filed elsewhere, alleges aggressive marketing of OxyContin beginning in the mid-1990s led to massive overprescribing and a scourge of dependency, addiction and death.

Once the pills ran out, the lawsuit alleges, many patients craving the same effects turned to cheaper, more potent alternatives: heroin and fentanyl.

Representatives for Purdue and Sackler family members said the suit misleadingly blames them for a problem that is far bigger than OxyContin.

“The state is seeking to publicly vilify Purdue” and the Sacklers with ill-supported claims about a drug that currently accounts for less than 2% of all opioid prescriptions, the company said in a statement.

The Sackler relatives named in the suit – all former Purdue board members who remain shareholders – said in a statement issued through a spokeswoman that they “have always acted properly”.

They and the company said they would fight the new allegations, which come two days after Purdue and the Sacklers agreed to pay 270 million dollars (£204 million) to the state of Oklahoma to settle an opioid lawsuit there.

In settling the case, Purdue denied any wrongdoing.

It was the first settlement in a recent wave of nearly 2,000 lawsuits that the company says could push it into bankruptcy.

The suit accuses Purdue in particular of downplaying addiction risks and pushing doctors to increase dosages even as the dangers became known.

The Sacklers have given tens of millions of dollars to New York City cultural institutions.

In the past few weeks, as the accusations against the family have mounted, the Tate museums in London and the Guggenheim Museum in New York have cut ties with the family, and other institutions have come under pressure to turn down donations or remove the Sackler name.

The other defendants in New York’s lawsuit are: Johnson & Johnson and Janssen Pharmaceuticals; UK-based Mallinckrodt plc, which has an opioid manufacturing plant in Hobart, New York; Dublin-based Endo and Allergan; Israeli pharmaceutical company Teva and the drug distributors McKesson, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and Rochester Drug Cooperative Inc.

Endo said in a statement that it denies the allegations in the lawsuit and intends to vigorously defend itself.

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