OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson started a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma, which manufactures the widely-used prescription opioid OxyContin, and three distribution companies he sees as bearing responsibility for the opioid crisis.
Ferguson spoke with KREM’s Casey Decker about his lawsuit,and said that he thinks the manufacturers of opioids bear “quite a bit” of responsibility for the opioid crisis in the United States.
Purdue Pharma is one such company that Ferguson feels should be held accountable.
“There’s a lot of accountability for [Purdue],” Ferguson said. “Not just for producing OxyContin, but the way in which they deceptively promoted their product by indicating to doctors that it’s not especially addictive when in fact we know that quite the opposite is the case.”
The opioid epidemic started in the early 2000s, but Purdue’s marketing of OxyContin to doctors began earlier, in the 1990s.
Ferguson said that the company sold it as a safe way to combat chronic pain while posing only a low risk of addiction or overdose, which the attorney general said Purdue had no way of proving was true.
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“In Washington state, you cannot be deceptive about the way you market your product,” Ferguson said.
When patients addicted to the drug began demanding that doctors provided more and more, Ferguson said that Purdue stood by their claims and recommended that the doctors prescribe higher doses.
“They even called it pseudoaddiction, as if it wasn’t really addiction these individuals were suffering from, but actually pain,” Ferguson said.
Purdue Pharma has issued a statement in regards to the lawsuit, denying any wrongdoing.
“Purdue Pharma vigorously denies the allegations in the lawsuit and will continue to defend itself against these misleading attacks.The state cannot link the conduct alleged to the harm described,” the company said.
The other players in Ferguson’s lawsuit are three companies known as distributors, which actually provided the drug to doctors. These companies represent some of the most profitable in the world, and Ferguson’s lawsuit argues that they are also responsible for the over-prescription of these drugs.
The three distributors are the McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen.
The attorney general also argues these distributors actually provided prescriptions instead of pills to people in Eastern Washington counties at an alarming rate.
“Literally, there are about a dozen counties in our state,many of them in Eastern Washington, where these distributors sent more prescriptions — again not pills, prescriptions — than there were people in those counties,” Ferguson said. “That’s breathtaking in the extreme.”
McKesson declined to comment on the suit, but issued a statement about the opioid crisis.
“We are deeply concerned by the impact the opioid epidemic is having on families and communities across our nation,” McKesson said in the statement.
The other distributors named in the lawsuit declined KREM’s request for comment.
The Drug Enforcement Agency has previously mandated that drug distributors keep track of suspicious orders of opioids and stop those that are suspicious before they are shipped.
However, the DEA has repeatedly fined companies for not stopping these shipments.
While the number of opioid addictions that can be traced back to prescribed drugs has been declining as the number of those starting with heroin has gone up, according to a study in the journal Addictive Behaviors, Ferguson said his lawsuit is still critical.
“They flooded these communities with opioids and the harm that individuals and families are suffering from,” Ferguson said. “I’ve spoken to too many families about this. It’s heartbreaking. What these companies did is indefensible. They need to be held accountable.”
The penalties the suit is asking for equates to all of the profits the companies made from opioids in Washington state. Ferguson plans on using the money to help stop the opioid crisis.
The next trial date is set for February 2020. Ferguson said he wouldn’t try a case he didn’t think he could win.
This story was featured in KREM's special report 'Opioids: Time to Talk.' Click here to view the special report.