Vermont Sues OxyContin Maker for Its Role in the Opiate Crisis | Off Message

Vermont Sues OxyContin Maker for Its Role in the Opiate Crisis


Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan. - MARK DAVIS
  • Mark Davis
  • Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan.
Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, alleging that the company's aggressive promotion of the drug helped spark the deadly and costly opiate-addiction crisis.

"Purdue Pharma lied, they misrepresented, they fabricated," Donovan said during a press conference outside Chittenden Superior Court, where the lawsuit was filed. "And they spread falsehoods, and they made billions off it — and they created a path of destruction that the State of Vermont is still reeling from."

Donovan said he decided to sue after settlement talks between Purdue, Vermont and other states broke down. The attorney general said he is still open to a settlement, possibly involving other states. But he repeatedly stressed that Vermont has a "compelling story to tell" should it continue to go it alone against the manufacturer of the powerful pain-relief drug.

Donovan said the lawsuit would seek compensation for money Vermont has spent, and will spend, combating the opiate crisis. He hinted his office could pursue lawsuits against other drug companies.

The lawsuit does not seek a specific amount, and Donovan demurred when pressed for details. The lawsuit said the state spent $70 million for opiate treatment programs between 2012 and 2017.

At least 27 other states have sued Purdue Pharma for its role in the crisis, claiming that scores of OxyContin users wound up heroin addicts.

The 96-page lawsuit details Purdue's marketing of OxyContin and the growth of Vermont's opiate problem. In 2015, 91 percent of the state's opiate deaths involved people with histories of using prescription opiates.

Last year, 107 people died from opiate overdoses in Vermont, making 2017 the third straight year of record fatalities.

Donovan said his office has collaborated with other states for several months investigating Purdue in preparation for litigation.

Nationally, Vermont has received some credit for what has been perceived as its aggressive response to the crisis, including the Department of Health's hub-and-spoke addiction-treatment system and making the overdose-reversing drug Narcan more readily available.

Donovan hinted that those initiatives could strengthen the state's hand when arguing for compensation from Purdue.

"It's important to be part of a coalition, [but] we always retained a right to file our own lawsuit," Donovan said.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, Police Chief Brandon del Pozo and Howard Center executive director Bob Bick joined Donovan at the press conference. They all said they need additional funds to combat the rise in addiction and overdoses.

"We hope it's not too late," del Pozo said.

Weinberger said he believes various efforts to bolster addiction treatment are starting to make a difference.

"We continue to struggle under the pressure created by this epidemic [but] I am hopeful that, after years of work, we are starting to figure this out," the mayor said.

The lawsuit alleges that Purdue violated Vermont's consumer protection law and public nuisance laws with illegal and deceptive marketing of OxyContin. The privately held pharma company, based in Stamford, Conn., downplayed addiction risks and misrepresented the benefits of the drug, the state alleges.

A company spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Donovan's office is partnering with a Washington D.C. law firm, Cohen Milstein, in the litigation. The firm, which is also assisting New Jersey and Indiana in opiate litigation, will receive a portion of any possible settlement.

Donovan said the arrangement, not unusual in high-profile cases against large corporations, will help the state's legal team. Deputy Attorney General Joshua Diamond said the firm responded to a state request for proposals and will be paid according to a "sliding-scale contingency fee."

Donovan said he would not take any campaign contributions from the firm, in an effort to avoid an issue that plagued his predecessor.

Donovan said his office notified Gov. Phil Scott's staff about the lawsuit. Democrats criticized the governor last month for accepting a $1,000 campaign donation from Purdue.

Here's the suit. Limited portions are redacted, for now, by agreement between the company and the state.

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