Ca. counties sue Big Pharma over opioid marketing

pill money signTwo California counties have launched a lawsuit accusing five major pharmaceutical companies of obscuring the addictive effects of OxyContin, Percocet and other powerful opioid painkillers while reaping billions of dollars in profits from the drugs. The companies deceived tens of millions of doctors and patients about the “significant dangers and questionable benefits of prescription opioids” for the treatment of long-term non-cancer pain, according to a complaint filed today in California state court. The five opioid manufacturers — Purdue Pharma, Cephalon, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Endo Health Solutions, and Actavis — concealed the dangerously addictive nature of the medicines while touting benefits that had no scientific support, in order to expand the market for the drugs and boost profits, the lawsuit alleges.

The complaint charges that the pharmaceutical companies marketed opioids as “rarely” addictive, misrepresented the evidence of their efficacy for treating chronic non-cancer pain, trivialized their serious side effects and falsely assured doctors and consumers that opioids were safer than over-the-counter drugs.

According to the suit:

These pharmaceutical companies have a long history of aggressively marketing these dangerous drugs through sophisticated campaigns. These campaigns employ industry-funded professional associations, patient advocacy groups, and physicians to deceive consumers and their doctors about the harms and purported benefits of opioids for treating chronic pain.

This deceptive marketing campaign “deprived California patients and their doctors of the ability to make informed medical decisions and, instead, caused important, sometimes life-or-death decisions to be made based not on science, but on hype,” the complaint notes.

Drug overdose deaths increased for the 11th consecutive year in 2010, and most of those deaths were accidents involving addictive painkillers, according to new federal data. In 2010, there were 38,329 drug overdose deaths nationwide, and medicines – mostly prescription drugs – were involved in nearly 60 percent of overdose deaths, surpassing deaths from illicit narcotics, according to a study by the CDC published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Opioid drugs such as OxyContin and Vicodin were the biggest problem, contributing to 3 out of 4 medication overdose deaths.

In California, the widespread prescribing of opioids has led to a surge in emergency room visits and overdose deaths, with little accountability for the source of the problem. In 2012, the Los Angeles Times issued a report finding that the California Medical Board repeatedly failed to protect patients from reckless prescribing by doctors: it rarely tries to suspend the prescribing privileges of doctors under investigation, and even when it imposes sanctions, in most cases it allows doctors to continue practicing and prescribing. The Times’ examination of board records and county coroners’ files from 2005 through 2011 found that eight doctors disciplined for excessive prescribing later had patients die of overdoses or related causes; prescriptions those doctors wrote caused or contributed to 19 deaths.

About Erin Marie Daly

I’m a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. My book on prescription drug and heroin addiction was published in August 2014 by Counterpoint Press.
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