In the midst of a deadly opioid crisis, Ohio sues drugmakers for marketing fraud

Ohio has sued opioid drugmakers for alleged fraudulent marketing practices. (Jeff Kubina)

After seeing drug overdoses become the state’s leading cause of accidental deaths, officials in Ohio have had enough. In a new lawsuit filed on Wednesday, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine is going after Teva, Allergan, Johnson & Johnson, Purdue and Endo for alleged “fraudulent marketing practices” on powerful opioid painkillers.

Ohio’s 101-page lawsuit says the pharma companies, individually and together, broke pharma marketing rules and “helped unleash” an opioid epidemic that has had “far-reaching financial, social, and deadly consequences” in the state. The companies did that, according to the suit, by spending millions to widely market the meds while downplaying risks.

Similar to a host of other lawsuits filed against opioid makers, Ohio's suit says that to push their painkillers, the companies borrowed a page from the "Big Tobacco playbook." They worked to convince “key opinion leaders” and professional societies of the benefits of opioids in treating chronic pain, according to the AG.

With influencers and other groups on their side, the companies could then “taint the sources that doctors and patients relied on for ostensibly ‘neutral’ guidance, such as treatment guidelines, Continuing Medical Education programs, medical conferences and seminars, and scientific articles,” the suit says.

RELATED: Chicago makes second run at Allergan, J&J, Purdue and others with painkiller lawsuit

Ohio asks for restitution and punitive damages, plus an order requiring the companies to stop the “unlawful promotion,” among other items.

Responding to FiercePharma, a spokesperson for J&J’s Janssen unit said the company believes the “allegations in this lawsuit are both legally and factually unfounded.” Janssen has acted “appropriately, responsibly and in the best interests of patients regarding our opioid pain medications,” she added.

A Purdue spokesperson said the company shares “concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions.” He added that Purdue’s OxyContin represents a small fraction in the market, but that Purdue is “an industry leader in the development of abuse-deterrent technology, advocating for the use of prescription drug monitoring programs and supporting access” to overdose med Naloxone.

RELATED: CDC guidelines call for drastic cuts in opioid painkiller use

For its part, Teva said it’s reviewing the complaint and can’t comment until that review is complete. Endo said it couldn’t comment on ongoing litigation; Allergan also declined to comment.

Ohio joins other governments, including the city of Chicago, counties in New York, plus Illinois and New Hampshire, that have gone after opioid makers as the United States faces a damaging addiction epidemic. Last year, the CDC rolled out new opioid guidelines calling for a drastic reduction in scripts.

RELATED: With addiction rates rising, NY counties join march to sue opioid manufacturers

The Ohio suit says the marketing strategies started in the late 1990s and continue today. To date, the tactics have been “wildly successful,” according to the suit, as opioids are now the most prescribed drug class in the country, with billions in annual sales.

Drug-related overdoses have been Ohio’s leading cause of accidental deaths since 2007.

RELATED: Senate probe keeps heat on J&J, Mylan, Depomed and others for their opioid marketing

DeWine’s lawsuit comes shortly after Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., kicked off a probe of the opioid industry’s marketing practices, targeting Johnson & Johnson, Mylan, Depomed, Insys and Purdue. She’s seeking opioid abuse estimates by the companies, plus info about marketing strategies, sales quotas and contributions to patient groups.

In the wake of the legal attention to opioid promotion, Chicago has implemented a $750 pharma sales rep license aimed at curbing abuse, while Pfizer and the city agreed to a marketing agreement for painkillers.