DENVER — The State of Colorado is suing Purdue Pharma, alleging the creator of the opioid drug OxyContin misrepresented the potential for abuse and effectiveness of the drug by sending representatives to medical organizations and doctors’ offices to disseminate that information.
The nearly 100-page lawsuit claims the pharmaceutical giant, which has earned $35 billion in opioid manufacturing and sales, took on a marketing campaign aimed at creating doubt that opioids should be used sparingly. They did so, the lawsuit says, by providing medical professionals “promotional materials that appeared to be based on scientific evidence.”
However, the complaint says that evidence was often misleading and sponsored by Purdue, created by experts “cherry-picked” by the company. In one example, Purdue drafted and sponsored Responsible Opioid Prescribing, a clinician guidebook produced by the Federation of State Medical Board (FSMB).
The lawsuit states “Purdue provided $900,000 for various FSMB initiatives related to opioids, including $100,000 for the distribution of Responsible Opioid Prescribing and $50,000 to fund Scott Fishman, M.D.’s, (a Purdue Key Opinion Leader, as described below) production of the book.”
This complaint points to discrepancies between what Purdue told the public and what they said behind closed doors, claiming Purdue essentially admits in internal reviews that opioids don’t have as significant an impact on a patient’s function if at all. That same review allegedly says it’s not clear if the benefits of opioids outweigh the risks.
It’s not unusual for pharmaceutical representatives to visit doctor’s offices, but the attorney general says Purdue’s marketing strategy included funding third-party organizations known as “Front Groups” and “Key Opinion Leaders (KOL),” who could get Purdue's own literature and research to medical groups.
The state says that from 2006 to 2016, Purdue paid those “Front Groups” more than $68 million in grants and that the message disseminated by those groups may have convinced Colorado medical professionals to change treatment protocols.
The lawsuit says Purdue appointed local Colorado leaders as well.
“To supplement the efforts of national KOLs, Purdue also employed Colorado KOLs to provide more trusted local sources of misinformation about opioids," the lawsuit read in part. "Like the national KOLs, Purdue’s Colorado-based KOLs serve in leadership positions for local third party pain organizations, like the Colorado Pain Society.”
The Colorado Pain Society, according to the lawsuit, sent a representative to a December 2017 stakeholder’s meeting regarding new opioid prescribing guidelines in the state.
The complaint says the representative suggested that Colorado doctors should receive additional education and referred to that clinician guidebook allegedly sponsored by Purdue. The complaint says relationships with Purdue were not brought up in that December meeting.
The lawsuit also claims Purdue Pharma sent representatives to visit doctors’ offices across the country, including in Colorado, on a regular basis to share their information with medical professionals who may have apprehension in prescribing too many opioids.
It says Purdue pressured prescribers by claiming they were failing their patients by not providing opioids for pain and that the company convinced health care providers to increase dosages by saying that OxyContin does not have a ceiling dose.
The lawsuit also details several specific abuses by Colorado doctors who were coached by Purdue Pharma representatives.
In one case, Purdue representative visited a family practitioner in Fort Collins hundreds of times in a 10-year period and that the company noted this doctor was the top OxyContin prescriber in the state, writing over 19,000 prescriptions, roughly 1.7 million pills, in less than 20 years.
The Colorado Medical Board disciplined this doctor for failing to recognize signs of abuse and he later surrendered his medical license.
The names of these doctors were not shared in the complaint.
In another example in the lawsuit, a doctor in Wheat Ridge initially expressed concerns about prescribing the drug, but after dozens of visits by Purdue representatives, regularly prescribed OxyContin. One of the doctor’s patients overdosed and he would later plead guilty to illegal distribution, getting 48 months in prison.
The lawsuit makes 10 claims for relief.
Neither the Colorado Pain Society nor Purdue Pharma have returned request for comment.
If you think you have been affected by these practices, as a patient or medical practitioner, share your story with reporter Ryan Haarer at Ryan.Haarer@9News.com.