Church Abuse Colorado

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser at a news conference Feb. 19 in Denver.

Attorney General Phil Weiser has added members of the family that owns Purdue Pharma to a state lawsuit filed last year against the nation's largest manufacturer of opioids.

The original lawsuit, filed by then-Attorney General Cynthia Coffman in Denver District Court last September, accused the company of violations of the state's consumer protection laws, by using “fraudulent and deceptive marketing” to mislead Colorado doctors and patients about the risks of opioid addiction.

Purdue also persuaded doctors to prescribe “more opioids and at higher doses for longer periods of time," according to a statement last September from Coffman's office. (That news release and any others related to Coffman have since been removed from the AG's website.)

Monday's amended lawsuit was filed under seal, tied to a confidentiality agreement between Colorado and Purdue Pharma. However, Weiser's office said in a statement that the state "is asking the court to release the amended complaint in its entirety because the public interest far outweighs any of Purdue’s privacy concerns, particularly since much of the information has been disclosed in similar lawsuits around the country."

A spokesman for Weiser told Colorado Politics that the state "filed the amended complaint suppressed for no more than 10 days in order to comply with a confidentiality agreement with Purdue. It’s the judge’s decision whether or not to release it to the public sooner. The state filed a similar motion at the same time it filed the original complaint in September 2018 and the judge released the entirety of the state’s original complaint for public review."

The amended complaint claims that through "front groups, opinion leaders and their sales force, Purdue and the Sacklers sponsored and distributed misleading studies claiming that prescription opioids were effective long-term treatments for chronic pain, and they ignored expert warnings about the dangers of opioids," according to Weiser's statement.

In addition, Purdue’s marketing campaign "misrepresented and deliberately undermined the medical community’s trust in opioid alternatives like over-the-counter acetaminophen or NSAIDs"; the company and the Sackler family, which owns Purdue, "created a false medical condition called 'pseudoaddiction' to sell more opioids and increase corporate profits and personal fortunes," as a means to counter peer-reviewed studies that showed opioids are addictive, according to the statement.

In Colorado, the company and its executives kept a list of medical professionals "who prescribed the most opioids and made them the most money, and rewarded sales representatives with top bonuses and prizes for pushing these prescribers to write more opioid prescriptions. Nearly one out of 10 healthcare providers who were listed as Purdue top prescribers were later disciplined for reasons related to opioid prescribing," the statement said.

“Opioid addiction affects all Coloradans and poses a serious threat to the state’s public health, safety and economy. Purdue Pharma, executives of the company, and the Sackler family worked together to create, fuel, and profit from the crisis we are dealing with today,” Weiser said. "Furthermore, the Sackler family drained Purdue of money and assets, depriving the company of funds that could be used to remedy the wrongs it perpetrated. In this action, we are working to hold them responsible for their unscrupulous behavior so that the state can recover funds necessary to support crucial drug treatment and recovery pathways.”

The defendants targeted in the amended filing include Purdue Pharma, L.P.; Purdue Pharma, Inc.; sister company Rhodes Pharmaceuticals, L.P.; MNP Consulting Limited; and Richard Sackler; Mortimer D.A. Sackler; Jonathan Sackler; Kathe Sackler; Ilene Sackler Lefcourt; Beverly Sackler; Theresa Sackler; David Sackler; Russell Gasdia; Mark Timney; Craig Landau; and James David Haddox. The eight Sackler-named family members are also being sued by at least five other states, in addition to Colorado.

Brothers Raymond and Mortimer Sackler (now both deceased) purchased Purdue Pharma in 1952. 

The New York Times reported earlier this year that the family has benefited from both ends of the opioid issue: developing the opioids and then developing new drugs to help treat opioid addiction. In 2007, the company pleaded guilty to deceptive advertising for its drug, Oxycontin, also an opioid, and paid a $500 million fine.

Attorneys general in at least 42 states are investigating a half-dozen companies involved in opioid manufacturing or distribution. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 47,000 people died from drug overdoses tied to opioids in 2017. On an average day, 130 people die from opioid overdoses, the CDC reported. The number of deaths began to spike in 2013, with the introduction of synthetic opioids like Fentanyl.

Weiser's office cited data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that said in Colorado, nearly 4,500 people died from overdose deaths related to natural or semi-synthetic opioids between 2000 and 2018. More than 5,200 people died (excluding heroin) if synthetic opioids, such as Fentanyl, are included.

The lawsuits filed against Purdue and other opioid manufacturers and distributors are similar to those filed against tobacco companies in the 1990s that resulted in $250 billion in fines and a multistate master settlement agreement. According to Joint Budget Committee documents, Colorado received more than $750 million between 2007 and 2015 from that settlement.

The similarities are not accidental. Attorney Mike Moore, the Mississippi attorney general who lead the effort in the 1994 tobacco lawsuits, is leading the charge on national efforts regarding opioid lawsuits. Moore told CBS' 60 Minutes, in a segment that aired Sunday, that the lawsuits could bankrupt the opioid manufacturers and distributors, with fines greater than the fines paid out in the 1998 tobacco settlement. 

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