Washington state files suit against giant Purdue Pharma over opioid epidemic

SEATTLE -- Doctors saved a 12-year-old boy from leukemia but his mother says the treatment also made him an addict.

“I know he is suffering,” Rose Dennis said.

Dennis says doctors prescribed her son opioids, specifically OxyContin, to manage the pain. But she said what followed is nearly two decades of heartbreak. Dennis says her son started hanging around with the wrong crowd and stealing to feed his addiction. He’s been in and out of treatment up to 15 times.

“In his heart he doesn’t want this disease,” Dennis said.

Dennis says her son, now 31, is still fighting the demons of addiction.

Q13 News asked Dennis if she blamed the doctors.

“I had someone share with me that we should have sued them, to be honest with you. We thought about it, but in reality they saved our son’s life from cancer,” Dennis said.

But she isn’t backing down from Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, and now she has Washington State on her side.

“I don’t know how executives at Purdue Pharma sleep at night, I honestly don’t,” state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said.

Ferguson is accusing Purdue Pharma of deceptive marketing, saying the company downplayed the risks of addiction to doctors and consumers.

“Purdue has claimed that opioid addiction occurred in less than 1% in patients,” Ferguson said.

The Attorney General’s Office says the giant pharmaceutical company publicized that assumption in 1980 and stood by that claim all the way up to 2007.

It “aggressively marketed their opioids for chronic pain like headaches and lower back pain,” Ferguson said.

On Thursday, Purdue Pharma released this statement:

“We are deeply troubled by the opioid crisis and we are dedicated to being part of the solution. As a company grounded in science, we must balance patient access to FDA-approved medicines, while working collaboratively to solve this public health challenge. Although our products account for approximately 2% of the total opioid prescriptions, as a company, we’ve distributed the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, developed the first FDA-approved opioid medication with abuse-deterrent properties and partner with law enforcement to ensure access to naloxone. We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.”

A big part of the company’s defense is that it’s exempt from lawsuits because OxyContin was approved by the FDA and that risks are listed on warning labels.

They say these cases are different from ones that targeted tobacco makers. They say opioid suits are targeting a government-regulated product and that judges would have to refer to FDA’s findings.

Still, the battle against the company is mounting; the state’s legal fight bolstered by a separate lawsuit from the city of Seattle.

“Unlike earthquakes and hurricanes, this disaster is a human-made crisis,” Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes said.

Holmes says the addictions are fueling homelessness, something Dennis says is true for her son.

“He’s lived in the streets, he lived in 'The Jungle' (homeless camp), it’s just painful to see,” Dennis said.

The state says it hopes to recoup the profits made by opioid sales by Purdue Pharma, meaning they could potentially be after billions of dollars.

The city of Seattle is going after Purdue but also other companies, including Teva Pharmaceutical and Endo Pharmaceutical.

Teva released this statement:

“Teva is committed to the appropriate use of opioid medicines, and we recognize the critical public health issues impacting communities across the U.S. as a result of illegal drug use as well as the misuse and abuse of opioids that are available legally by prescription. To that end, we take a multi-faceted approach to this complex issue; we work to educate communities and health care providers on appropriate medicine use and prescribing, we comply closely with all relevant federal and state regulations regarding these medicines, and, through our R&D pipeline, we are developing non-opioid treatments that have the potential to bring relief to patients in chronic pain. Teva offers extensive resources for prescribers, patients and pharmacists regarding the responsible pain management and prevention of prescription drug abuse. Teva also collaborates closely with other stakeholders, including providers and prescribers, regulators, public health officials and patient advocates, to understand how to prevent prescription drug abuse without sacrificing patients’ needed access to pain medicine.”

And Endo had this to say:

“At Endo, our top priorities include patient safety and ensuring that patients with chronic pain have access to safe and effective therapeutic options. We share in the FDA’s goal of appropriately supporting the needs of patients with chronic pain while preventing misuse and diversion of opioid products.
It is Endo's policy not to comment on current litigation or investigations.”

Even before Thursday’s lawsuits, the city of Everett sued Purdue Pharma earlier this year but on different grounds, saying the company was liable for illegal drug trafficking of OxyContin by gang members. On Monday, a federal judge denied the company’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which gives a temporary win to Everett to move forward with the case.