On Tuesday, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker announced the state is taking legal action against Perdue Pharmaceuticals, the maker of the prescription opiod painkiller OxyContin, for deceptive marketing practices that have fueled the state’s opioid epidemic.
The lawsuit joins more than two dozen other states and cities in seeking monetary damages for drug companies’ role in what has become the country’s worst drug epidemic in U.S. history.
“We believe based on our investigation that Perdue overstated the benefits of their drug and understated its risk in violation of Alaska’s Unfair Trade Practices and consumer protection act to the detriment of the people of Alaska,” said Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth.
Alaska’s lawsuit charges Perdue has used false advertising, made false medical claims, caused a public nuisance, committed fraud, failed to warn when the risks of opioids became clear and that it got rich off its unjust actions. The lawsuit doesn’t set an overall monetary figure for damages, but the state law allows up to $25,000 per violation of unfair trade practices.
“We also believe Perdue demonstrated a pattern of deceptive marketing practices to convince practitioners to prescribe their drug including the use of seemingly neutral medical professionals and medical organizations who promoted the drug to their colleagues without disclosing their relationship to Perdue,” Lindemuth said.
The lawsuit also alleges that just a handful of doctors were responsible for much of the prescription opioids in Alaska, and three prescribers alone accounted for $1 million each in Medicaid bills for opioids.
At Tuesday’s news conference Dr. Jay Butler, Chief Medical Officer for the State of Alaska, said doctors bought into the marketing, but now that opioid epidemic has become a clear and pressing health crisis many are feeling deceived. Butler added that many people who are using illegal opioids like heroin became addicted first with prescription painkillers.
“When we look at the demand for opioids one of the big drivers is the way they’ve been prescribed for pain,” he said. “What I’ve heard again and again from talking to my colleagues is they thought they were doing the right thing. Some of what their practices have been based on is information that was provided to them, which was really misrepresenting what was in the science.”
It’s similar feeling that’s been echoed by other doctors in Alaska. Up in Fairbanks, Dr. Mark Simon, the head of the emergency room at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, suggested people consider declining opioid prescriptions.
“I can honestly say the only sure-fire way to protect yourself from this is to not accept any prescriptions for opiates, that’s Vicodin and Percocet,” he said at a February town hall.
The 2016 book “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic” by Sam Quinones also documented the hard-sell tactics of opioid manufacturers that targeted doctors with carefully crafted messages that glossed over the risk of addiction—a long-standing concern for doctors when it came to using opioid to fight pain—and oversold the benefits. One of the key pieces of information the drug companies used was a short, non-scientific comment that was published in a letters to the editor section of a medical journal.
Relighting the tobacco settlements
The push for lawsuits against opioid manufacturers is similar to the 1998 settlement between tobacco companies and the states. Under that agreement, Alaska has through 2017 received about $498 million in total annual settlement payments according to a tally kept by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
The non-profit notes, however, that very little of that money—just $9.5 million—has been used for prevention of tobacco use. In total, states have used little of the money to with a commonly cited use of that money being Alaska’s use of $3.5 million to renovate shipping docks in Wrangell.
Given the huge sums that states take in from the Master Settlement Agreement, it is clear that states are not spending nearly enough of their tobacco settlement revenues to prevent and reduce tobacco use.