Utah’s attorney general goes after opioid-maker Purdue Pharma and its owners, seeks civil penalties

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Attorney General Sean Reyes speaks during a news conference about the National Suicide Prevention Hotline Improvement Act being signed into law. Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2018.

Utah officials ramped up their legal attack on Purdue Pharma, a leading manufacturer of opioids, filing a new court action Wednesday over allegations that the company exaggerated the benefits and hid the risks of its prescription drugs, including OxyContin.

The Beehive State is now among a growing number of states that have filed court claims that Purdue violated state consumer protection laws by downplaying addiction risks and touting the benefits of opioid use instead.

“While Purdue’s executives got rich,” Attorney General Sean Reyes said in a statement, “Utah was plunged into a national public health crisis.”

The Utah Attorney General’s Office and several Utah counties have filed civil lawsuits against the company, but Wednesday’s court filing was different.

The filing is called an “administrative action,” in which Utah attorneys can prove their case and get civil penalties much quicker than with a traditional lawsuit.

The attorney general’s office estimates that while the other lawsuits could languish in the court system for years, this administrative claim could be adjudicated within six months.

“Our families, health care professionals, first responders, and law enforcement officers know the urgency of the opioid epidemic,” Reyes said. “As we recognized when we filed suit, and in the several months since then, we don’t have more time to lose. Meanwhile, we are continuing to investigate other potential wrongdoers.”

The attorney general’s office asked for its civil lawsuit against Purdue, filed in Carbon County, to be dismissed. The other lawsuits filed by the counties still stand.

Reyes said filing the administrative proceeding would offer the state some protection if Purdue Pharma shakes up its corporate structure. The company last year hired a team of restructuring lawyers and laid off hundreds of employees, signs that the company could be looking to restructure or declare bankruptcy, Reyes said during a Wednesday news conference.

By pursuing a swifter course of action, Utah could cement its claim against the company before any kind of massive reorganization, Reyes said.

The new administrative action goes after not just Purdue Pharma, but company owners Richard and Kathe Sackler.

Attorneys say in court papers that Purdue and the Sacklers used an aggressive marketing campaign to overstate the benefits of opioids — while concealing the risks — in order to make more money.

The company gave promotional materials to Utah doctors, the action claims, held conferences and dinners for prescribers, gave guidelines to doctors and sent sales representatives into Utah doctor’s offices.

And the company paid at least two Utah doctors to be “key opinion leaders,” who wrote promotional material for the best approaches to pain management while also prescribing lethal amounts of the drugs to Utah patients.

“Purdue helped cultivate a narrative that pain was underrated and pain treatment should be a higher priority for heath care providers,” attorneys wrote. “This paved the way for increased prescribing of opioids for chronic pain.”

That led to an “epidemic” of prescription opioid abuse in Utah, attorneys wrote.

“This epidemic has drained state resources from the criminal justice, social services and welfare, education and healthcare systems,” the complaint reads. “Prescription opioid abuse costs the citizens and state of Utah approximately $238 million in healthcare costs each year.”

Utah attorneys also allege in the filing that while Purdue has publicly stated that it is trying to be part of the “solution” to prescription drug abuse, it has not been. The company has failed to report those who are inappropriately prescribing the drug, according to the filing, and instead continue to make money off those high-level prescribers.

Jennifer Plumb, a Utah doctor who's on the state's opioid abuse task force, said she finds it significant that members of the Sackler family are individually named on the state's new administrative action.

“I think that there is a lot of importance in saying that individuals are responsible here,” she said. “I think it says there is no amount of money that makes it OK for you to go out and wreak havoc on our citizens, period.”

Purdue Pharma officials “vigorously deny the allegations" in Utah’s court filing, according to a Wednesday statement.

“We share the state’s concerns about the opioid crisis,” the statement reads. “While Purdue Pharma’s opioid medicines account for less than 2 percent of total prescriptions, we will continue to work collaboratively with the state toward bringing meaningful solutions forward to address this public health challenge.”

The company further stated that Utah’s allegations omitted key facts, including that Purdue has reformulated OxyContin to deter abuse. The FDA has also addressed many of the issues in the complaint, the company said, and has continued to approve Purdue Pharma’s opioids as safe for intended use.

Reyes was slow in filing the state’s initial lawsuit against Purdue last year — doing so only in the wake of multiple Utah counties filing suit and the state Legislature last spring essentially demanding that he sue on behalf of the state.

Reyes explains the delay by saying his office has for months played a leading role in a cooperative effort by attorneys general across the country to try to reach a negotiated settlement with the major makers and distributors of OxyContin and other opioids.

In a Wednesday news release, Reyes’ office said it will continue to work with other attorneys general throughout the nation to investigate whether other opioid companies broke the law while marketing dangerous drugs.