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OxyContin Maker: Doctors, Patients, Drug Dealers to Blame for Opioid Epidemic

The makers of the addictive and deadly drug OxyContin have one message for Tennessee residents and their attorney general: Don’t blame us for the opioid epidemic.

Purdue Pharma is asking — via Nashville attorney William J. Harbison — a Knox County judge to toss out of court Tennessee Attorney General Herbert H. Slatery III’s lawsuit against the family-owned firm that has made a fortune off a drug at the center of a national epidemic and the most deadly of all opioids for Tennessee’s residents.

Doctors, drug dealers to blame?

Using Purdue’s own records, Slatery’s lawsuit lays bare high-pressure sales tactics from Purdue staffers specifically directed at overworked and under-skilled doctors to push growing numbers of prescriptions of OxyContin at increasingly high dosages for uses ranging from generalized pain to sleeplessness.

Slatery’s office says Purdue Pharma should be held legally and financially responsible for pouring fire on the already burning opioid crisis — after promising in 2007 the firm would change its marketing ways.

'Dreamland' journalist: Purdue Pharma lawsuit implies not much changed — except awareness

But Harbison says the opioid epidemic isn’t Purdue’s fault. Instead, Purdue is pointing the finger of blame at doctors and patients — the dispensers and users of its drugs — and drug-dealing addicts created by its drugs, Harbison wrote.

“The alleged nuisance in this case is not caused by Purdue’s sale of its legal, FDA-regulated medications, but rather by doctors who wrote improper prescriptions and/or by third parties who caused persons without valid and medically necessary prescriptions to get opioid medications or illegal street drugs. Purdue has no control over those persons,” he wrote.

Promises made, broken

Tennessee’s attorney general is suing Purdue Pharma on behalf of taxpayers in Knox County Circuit Court for the deadly opioid epidemic. USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee and the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government sued to make that lawsuit public.

Purdue Pharma promised Tennessee’s taxpayers in a 2007 agreement — inked by Slatery’s predecessor — to quit lying about OxyContin, stop “aggressively” pushing doctors to prescribe it, report over-prescribing doctors to authorities and help doctors better identify addicted patients.

Slatery’s office invoked the terms of that agreement in forcing Purdue to turn over internal records.

The lawsuit — citing those records — alleges the firm funneled money to “advocacy groups” to push OxyContin as safe and effective for all kinds of unspecified pain, made hundreds of calls to doctors in a push to get them to prescribe more of the drug to more people, kept calling on pill mill doctors even after the medical providers were indicted as drug dealers, and gave doctors and patients false information about addiction.

The lawsuit accuses Purdue of violating the 2007 agreement and Tennessee consumer protection and public nuisance laws.

Purdue wants Circuit Judge Kristi M. Davis to dismiss the lawsuit. Harbison did not dispute in his motion the detailed records and notes the state lawsuit cites extensively.

'No basis' in law

Instead, he’s arguing Tennessee taxpayers have no legal leg upon which to stand in court.

“The State does not allege that Purdue interfered with any right common to the public, such as clean air or water,” Harbison wrote. “Instead, the State alleges that Purdue sold medications to third parties, and that those third parties later provided the medications to some people who misused or abused them.

“There is no basis to radically expand and distort the law of public nuisance, or to ignore the State’s failure to plead a cognizable claim,” he continued. “If the Court were to permit this claim to survive, it would open the gates to a host of other public nuisance lawsuits that target complex, multifactorial, and ill-defined societal harms.”

Timeline: How the opioids crisis took hold

Harbison also says in his motion that federal law trumps state law — and Purdue has the blessing of the Food and Drug Administration, a federal agency, in how it labels and markets OxyContin.

The Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing tried to get the FDA to regulate OxyContin in 2012 — limiting how much and how long it is prescribed and its uses to trauma patients and fatal disease sufferers primarily — but failed.

Harbison says Purdue has been labeling and marketing its drug exactly the way the FDA ordered, including relying upon prescribing guidelines established by the American Pain Society, which bills itself as an independent research group.

Financial ties that bind

But Purdue’s own records — revealed via the lawsuit — show the family-owned firmwas paying doctors to downplay the addictive properties of OxyContin and funding advocacy groups, including the American Pain Society, while the FDA was relying on the American Pain Society as an independent voice on OxyContin.

The lawsuit revealed Purdue has paid the American Pain Society $3.1 million from 1997 to 2012. That includes $628,925 in “educational grants” from the time Purdue struck its deal with Tennessee in 2007 to 2016. Other opioid makers have given the American Pain Society $420,465 in the past five years.

The FDA had relied on the American Pain Society and a half-dozen others now linked to Big Pharma in deciding whether to place tighter controls on the prescribing of OxyContin.

The FDA credited the American Pain Society and other interest groups' claimed expertise over that of doctors in refusing to limit how much OxyContin could be prescribed daily and for how long, according to the FDA’s own summary of its decision.

American Pain Society spokesman Chuck Weber initially denied the group, established in 1997, got any money from Purdue.

“APS does not receive financial support from Purdue Pharma,” he wrote in an email.

'Science moves fast'

After USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee supplied Weber with the figures in the lawsuit, Weber responded Thursday by saying, "APS currently receives no funding from Purdue. In past years, the company has supported the APS annual meeting, research awards, publications, and symposia. Purdue had no influence in shaping the content of any APS activities or sessions."

The American Pain Society and the American Academy of Pain Medication — another group funded by “grants” from Big Pharma — were forced in 2009 to withdraw a “consensus statement” saying opioids were safe for long-term, non-cancer pain issued in 1996. Purdue was giving both groups money by 1997, according to a congressional report.

“Science moves fast and numerous studies have been published on opioid therapy since 1996,” Weber said in defending the consensus statement and its later withdrawal.

He said the APS guideline now says “opioids are safe and effective for patients with chronic non-cancer pain, provided they are carefully selected, thoroughly counseled about the medication, and monitored regularly for side effects and possible abuse or aberrant drug behavior.”

Weber took direct aim at USA TODAY NETWORK - Tennessee’s reporting of the links between APS and Purdue.

“Your assertion that APS spreads misinformation about opioids at the behest of Purdue is wrong, unfair and irresponsible,” he said.

Slatery’s office will be given time to respond to Purdue’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Davis likely will set a hearing before ruling.

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