ATTORNEY GENERAL MAURA HEALEY, who has been one of the country’s strongest legal crusaders against opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma, has now filed a lawsuit against marketing firm Publicis Health for its role helping Purdue market addictive opioid pain medication.
“Today’s lawsuit reveals important new information about the misconduct that caused the opioid crisis, and it’s another step towards getting accountability for the families around Massachusetts who have been hurt,” Healey said at a virtual press conference.
Publicis Health is the latest company to be swept up in legal attempts to hold companies accountable for their role in the national epidemic of opioid addiction. Facing numerous lawsuits, the Sackler family, which owned Purdue Pharma, paid hundreds of millions of dollars to settle claims with the US Department of Justice, and the company has filed for bankruptcy. Electronic medical records company Practice Fusion and consultant McKinsey & Company both paid money to settle legal claims related to their work for Purdue Pharma.
Publicis Health, a New York-based health care marketing agency, is a subsidiary of the Publicis Groupe, a French global marketing agency with revenues of over $11 billion. Healey’s lawsuit against Publicis Health, filed in Suffolk Superior Court on Thursday, alleges that from 2010 to 2019, “Publicis worked with opioid companies, particularly Purdue Pharma, to increase sales of dangerous opioids like OxyContin, including in Massachusetts, in ways that increased the risk to patients and the public of opioid use disorder, overdose, and death.”
Healey wrote in the complaint that the company deployed “unfair and deceptive marketing campaigns” designed to push doctors to prescribe higher doses of opioids to more patients for longer periods, including by inserting illegal ads into patients’ electronic medical records.
A Publicis Health spokesperson said the lawsuit is “completely without basis.” The spokesperson said Publicis Health was working solely as an advertising agency, not a consultant. “The Massachusetts Attorney General’s complaint cherry picks unrelated statements made over the course of a multiyear engagement. It takes them out of context to create a completely false and misleading narrative,” the spokesperson said in a statement. The company says Healey does not identify a single statement made by Publicis Health that was false, and her claims should be barred by a statute of limitations.
“We look forward to a Court determining there is absolutely no legal basis that supports this lawsuit,” the company statement said.
The lawsuit alleges that Publicis Health (which did business under various other names and subsidiaries) entered into a marketing agreement with Purdue Pharma in 2010 to implement tactics designed to increase the sale of opioid drugs. Over the next decade, Publicis Health collected $50 million for its work.
“This decade–long marketing scheme had clear goals: to sell more OxyContin, make a profit and manage Purdue’s reputation as the opioid epidemic was raging,” Healey told reporters.
During this time, according to the court filing, Purdue went from targeting 5,000 prescribers in 2010 to 400,000 in 2013.
The court filing describes in detail how Publicis Health conducted its opioid marketing campaign for Purdue Pharma.
In 2015, it says, one method used was recording conversations between pain patients and their doctors and nurses to make their marketing more effective in getting doctors to prescribe the drugs.
In 2016, the suit says the company agreed to fight negative press about OyxContin and substance use disorder, even as the dangers of these addictive drugs were becoming well-known. Even when data confirmed that OxyContin was addictive and showed that new crush resistant pills did not reduce illicit drug use, Publicis and Purdue continued to develop marketing strategies to downplay the risks and encourage its prescription, the AG alleges.
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines to protect patients from the overprescribing of opioids, Publicis labeled those guidelines a threat to Purdue’s marketing and advised Purdue on how to continue to increase sales, despite the guidelines, according to the lawsuit. It developed a strategy of advising doctors to start low and continually reassess prescription levels – which Healey characterized as a method of determining by how much a doctor could increase a patient’s dose.
The company developed a strategy of directing providers who conducted web searches about diseases for which OxyContin was not approved to Purdue’s website, the suit charges. As prescribers learned more about the risks of addiction and began prescribing lower doses, Healey says Publicis designed a marketing campaign featuring patient stories and “savings cards” given to prescribers to push the prescription of higher doses for longer periods. Publicis advised Purdue to target the doctors who were already prescribing the most opioids, and also to reach out to nurse practitioners and physician assistants, according to the suit.
“Each incremental month and each additional pill strength meant more money for Purdue and greater success for Publicis, but for patients, including thousands of Purdue patients in Massachusetts, each step up meant greater risk of opioid use disorder, overdose, and death,” attorneys for Healey’s office wrote in the complaint.
The suit says Publicis Health also organized a campaign to embed banner ads for opioids in patients’ medical records. For example, it says, when a doctor entered a pain-related note into a patient’s chart or was about to write a prescription, a banner ad for Purdue’s opioid medication would appear. Electronic health record provider Practice Fusion paid $145 million in an agreement with the US Department of Justice for its role in allowing alerts aimed at encouraging doctors to write opioid prescriptions.
Healey argued that Publicis’s work directly contributed to opioid addiction and deaths in Massachusetts.
The complaint alleges that Publicis Health engaged in deceptive practices and created a “public nuisance.” It asks a judge to stop Publicis from engaging in deceptive advertising and from marketing any controlled substance in Massachusetts, to give up all payments it received from its opioid work, and to pay an unspecified amount of money in restitution and penalties.
Assistant Attorney General Jenny Wojewoda said the lawsuit does not set a figure on how much money it is seeking, but “the damages to our state are immense any way you calculate them due to the loss of life.”