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Texas sues the maker of OxyContin over the opioid epidemic

A pharmacist holds prescription painkiller OxyContin, 40mg pills, made by Purdue Pharma. (Source: REUTERS/George Frey)

By Marissa Evans | The Texas Tribune

Attorney General Ken Paxton is leading Texas into a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma for exacerbating the opioid crisis among Texans.

In an announcement Tuesday afternoon, Paxton, a Republican, flanked by other assistant attorney generals, said the state is taking the drug maker to court over misrepresenting the risks of opioid addiction.

Other states including Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, North Dakota and Nevada are also pursuing lawsuits against Purdue.

The lawsuit comes as more states, cities and counties across the United States are turning to the courts as they grapple with how to hold drug makers and distributors accountable amid a harrowing — and growing — epidemic that led to more than 42,000 opioid overdoses in 2016. Main culprits in the public health crisis include prescription painkillers such as Hydrocodone, Oxycontin, the synthetic drug fentanyl and heroin.

Texas has not been in the national spotlight over the opioid crisis like Kentucky, Maine, Ohio and West Virginia, but 1,375 Texans died from opioids in 2016. In addition, public health advocates have expressed fear that things will get worse in Texas due to lack of access to substance abuse treatment, particularly in rural counties.

Paxton’s office wrote in a May 10 letter to the Texas Supreme Court that it planned to file a lawsuit under the state’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The consumer protection statute forbids companies from misrepresenting themselves or their products to Texans. Examples of that include false or misleading advertising, exaggerating or misrepresenting the benefits or endorsements of a product or service, making false statements about the manufacture or origin of a product, passing off used products as new ones and price gouging.

Paxton said he’s leading Texas to sue against Purdue for several reasons including: lying to doctors and patients over what increasing the opioid dosages without risk; falsely representing that common signs of addiction are signs the patient needs higher opioid dosages; and misrepresenting the risk of becoming addicted to the company’s abuse-deterrent formulation OxyContin.

He said the state is still investigating other pharmaceutical companies and distributors. Asked if there were other companies the state plans to take to court, Paxton said he “would not be surprised” but “wouldn’t say yes or no because we don’t know who that would be.”

In September, Paxton announced he was joining a 41-state investigation of companies that manufacture or sell opioids. The states served investigative subpoenas or other requests to eight drugmakers and distributors including Endo Pharmaceuticals, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Teva Pharmaceuticals' Cephalon, Purdue Pharma, Allergan and their related entities, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson.

Dozens of county and city governments across Texas have also lawyered up and filed lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies. Law firms competing to represent the smaller governments say the companies oversold the drugs' benefits for treating chronic pain and have downplayed the risk for addiction. Those lawsuits are also vying for drug companies and distributors to reimburse counties and cities for their costs to treat opioid problems including treatment, lost productivity, emergency room costs and more.

The potential payoff for states, counties and cities is immense. A settlement could mean million- or billion-dollar payoffs for all involved. Legal experts have said the wave of opioid-related lawsuits is on par with the tobacco company settlements states received in the 1990s, when Texas made out with a $15 billion settlement.

Paxton did not say how much money the state was pursuing but according to the news release his office “seeks significant penalties” from Purdue.

Nationally, individual cases across the country have been absorbed into one multi-district case under a federal judge in Ohio. The first trial consolidating three Ohio cases, is set to begin March 2019 and is considered to be a test with how other lawsuits may shake out.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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