Drug companies charged with deceiving public on prescription painkillers

For over two decades, five large pharmaceutical companies have made billions of dollars in profits by deceiving tens of millions of doctors and patients about the significant dangers and questionable benefits of prescription opioids, a class of narcotic painkillers, for the treatment of long-term non-cancer pain, according to a complaint filed May 22 in California state court.

Filing on behalf of the People of the State of California, Santa Clara County Counsel Orry P. Korb and Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas charge that five of the largest opioid manufacturers – Purdue Pharma, Cephalon, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Endo Health Solutions, and Actavis – concealed the dangerously addictive nature of opioids such as OxyContin and Percocet while touting benefits that had no scientific support, in order to expand the market for the drugs and boost profits.

“As District Attorney, I have the task of protecting the People of Orange County against false advertising and unfair business practices in consumer protection cases,” said District Attorney Tony Rackauckas. “We have charged these pharmaceutical companies for knowingly harming public health by waging a massive campaign to sell huge quantities of these dangerous drugs for profit.”

“Because of the deceptive conduct of these drug companies, millions of Americans have become prescription drug addicts and abusers.  The result has been devastating:  broken families, skyrocketing medical costs, and rampant crime,” explained Santa Clara Assistant County Counsel Danny Chou.  “Instead of taking responsibility for their deceptions, the companies have pocketed billions of dollars in profits.  This lawsuit simply seeks to hold those companies accountable for the harms they have caused.” 

Opioids, which have become the most widely prescribed class of drugs in the U.S., are narcotics that are derived from opium and act like heroin.  There is no evidence that these drugs are helpful in the long-term for treating chronic noncancer pain.  Moreover, they are highly addictive and cause twice as many deaths as cocaine and heroin combined. Prescription opioid abuse has been described by the Centers for Disease Control as an “epidemic.”

  • The number of new opioid users in the United States increased by 104 percent between 2000 and 2010.
  • In 2010, there were 2.4 million opioid abusers in the United States, which is about the population of Houston, Texas.
  • Opioids are now responsible for more deaths than from both suicide and motor vehicle crashes, and cocaine and heroin combined.
  • 1 in 5 doctor visits in the United States result in an opioid prescription.
  • In California, as many as 4,000 people die from opioids every year, twice the number of homicides in the state.
  • An estimated 15-40% of opioid users are likely to become addicted to the drugs.
  • Opioids generated $8 billion in revenues for pharmaceutical companies in 2010.
  • The number one opioid, OxyContin, generated $3.1 billion in revenue in 2010.

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

The lawsuit seeks to end these deceptive marketing practices, recover restitution for consumers, impose civil penalties, and obtain an order requiring the drug companies to address the harms created by their deceptive conduct, including skyrocketing medical costs and crime. The lawsuit does not seek to limit doctors’ ability to prescribe opioids for appropriate conditions; it only seeks to make sure doctors and patients receive complete and accurate information.

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.

Because this suit seeks to expose and address the way pharmaceuticals have fraudulently marketed these dangerous drugs, we welcome any information from industry witnesses who may have information they can share. Witnesses should call the Orange County District Attorney’s Opioid Consumer Protection Hotline at (714) 347-0501.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.





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