Attorneys for Orange and Santa Clara counties, on behalf of the entire state of California, sued five major manufacturers of painkillers like OxyContin for “deceptive marketing and conspiratorial behavior” to promote the abuse of dangerous, addictive drugs.
The 102-page complaint, filed in Orange County Superior Court, accuses Actavis, Endo Health Solutions Inc., Johnson & Johnson's Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Purdue Pharma, and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries' Cephalon Inc. of peddling drugs using marketing claims not “supported by science and medical experience.”
The result is a nation of addicts. “According to the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], more than 12 million Americans age 12 or older have used prescription painkillers without a prescription in the past year, and adolescents are abusing opioids in alarming numbers,” the complain says.
Drugs meant to relieve pain and suffering have been transformed through 20 years of aggressive marketing into killers: “Prescription opioid use contributed to 16,651 overdose deaths nationally in 2010—more than twice as many deaths as heroin and cocaine combined and surpassing motor vehicle accidents as a cause of death,” the complaint says.
Drug deaths get the headlines, but the CDC estimates that for every one of them 30 people land in an emergency room from an overdose that doesn’t quite kill them. That’s what happens when doctors write 254 million prescriptions for opioids in a single year, “enough to medicate every adult in America around the clock for a month.”
Drugs of last resort, like Vicodin, Opana and OxyContin, have become the first choice of many doctors, transforming what had once been a small market for opioid drugs into an $8 billion industry by 2010. People who have trouble getting an appointment to see a doctor should know that 20% of all visits to a physician end in an opioid prescription. That’s more than for blood pressure, cholesterol or anxiety meds.
Robyn Reed Frenze, a spokeswoman for Janssen Pharmaceuticals, told the Los Angeles Times, “We're committed to responsible promotion, prescribing and use of all our medications.”
Opioid abuse is a particularly American passion. With about 4.6% of the world’s population, the U.S. gobbles up about 80% of the opioids, perhaps accounting in part for the nation’s seemingly endless run of bad social, economic and political choices.
Some of the accused pharmaceutical companies have been down this legal path before. In 2007, Purdue, the maker of OxyContin, forked over $635 million to settle federal accusations of criminal and civil charges related to misbranding of the drug. Although it was the largest such settlement of its kind, the number paled in comparison to the profits the company makes from the drug.
Purdue sold between $2.47 billion and $2.99 billion worth of OxyContin annually for the last five years. Another of the accused companies, Cephalon, paid $425 million in 2008 for its deceptive promotion of Actiq and a couple of other drugs.
“That didn’t change anything,” Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said in an interview with the Associated Press. “And that’s why this lawsuit can’t just be about the money.”
It was about more than money in 2007 when Purdue admitted as part of its settlement that its employees were misrepresenting their product. The company promised to retrain them and monitor compliance with new, higher standards.
They can probably be coerced into doing that again.