Alaska sues OxyContin maker, alleging deception

Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth discusses a lawsuit the state is filing against Purdue Pharma in the state Capitol on Tuesday. Purdue makes the prescription pain pill OxyContin. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

The state of Alaska has sued Purdue Pharma. Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth alleged the company engaged in deceptive practices in the sale of the opioid drug OxyContin.

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Lindemuth said Purdue misled Alaska doctors about OxyContin.

“We believe, based on our investigation, that Purdue overstated the benefits of their drug and understated its risks in violation of Alaska’s Unfair Trade Practices (Act) and Consumer Protection Act, to the detriment of the people of Alaska,” Lindemuth said Tuesday during a press availability in the Capitol.

The state filed the 85-page lawsuit in Anchorage Superior Court on Monday. Lindemuth said the state decided to pursue its own lawsuit, rather than join other states in a federal lawsuit, because it wanted to enforce Alaska’s strong state consumer protection laws.

“Where it’s something that’s so impacting Alaska in such a great manner and where it’s such an important issue for Alaska, we think that we need to be out front and pursuing those claims ourselves and having a direct role in how those claims are investigated here in Alaska and how those claims are pursued going forward,” Lindemuth said.

Lindemuth said Purdue used medical professionals who worked to appear neutral in promoting the drug to Alaska prescribers.

“These deceptive tactics and false statements have contributed to Alaska’s opioid epidemic and worsened the crisis,” Lindemuth said.

Ninety-five people in Alaska died last year from overdoses that included opioids. Alaska’s drug overdose death rate of 11 per 100,000 people is above the national average.

Alaska hired South Carolina-based law firm Motley Rice to both investigate the issue and represent the state in the law suit. The company will only be paid if the state wins – if it wins, Motley Rice will get 20 percent of the result. Purdue Pharma’s headquarters are in Connecticut.

Lindemuth said Alaska could also sue other drug makers and distributors.

“We want to put manufacturers and distributors on notice that we’re paying attention, and that we are going to pursue claims when they step over the line and market using false and misleading practices,” Lindemuth said.

For its part, Purdue responded in an email saying: “We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.”

Purdue points out that the Food and Drug Administration approved its medicine, but the company wishes to work collaboratively to solve the opioid crisis. The company also said OxyContin accounts for 2 percent of total opioid prescriptions.

In Alaska, OxyContin accounted for 90 percent of the state’s Medicaid spending on brand-name opioids.

Alaska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jay Butler said the lawsuit is part of the state’s effort to reduce both the supply and demand for opioids, particularly to treat chronic pain. Butler said doctors and other prescribers have driven much of the demand.

“They thought they were doing the right thing, and some of what their practices have been based on is information that was provided to them, which really was misrepresenting what was in the science,” Butler said.

For example, the lawsuit alleged Purdue made statements about using a 12-hour dose of OxyContin to treat chronic pain that were contrary to the company’s own knowledge and studies, as well as to general scientific evidence.

Gov. Bill Walker said the lawsuit follows up on his declaration of an opioid addiction epidemic.

“As I’ve said many times, there’s no one single thing you can do that’s suddenly going to turn things around,” Walker said. “There’s a number of levers to move, and this is one of them.”

The lawsuit doesn’t say exactly how much money the state is seeking from Purdue. But the state does say the state is seeking $25,000 for each violation of the state Unfair Trade Practices Act. And with one state attorney saying there could be thousands of violations, the total would be more than $50 million.