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(Reuters) — Massachusetts on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma L.P., accusing the OxyContin maker of illegally promoting the use of opioids, and became the first state to sue the drugmaker’s executives and directors to hold them responsible as well.
The lawsuit, brought by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, alleges that Purdue deceived doctors and patients by misrepresenting the risks of addiction and death associated with the prolonged use of its prescription opioids.
The civil action, filed in Suffolk County Superior Court, adds to a growing list of lawsuits by states and local governments accusing the Stamford, Connecticut-based company of deceptively marketing opioid painkillers.
But the lawsuit went a step further than those of other states by also naming 16 current or former Purdue executives and board members as defendants, including members of the Sackler family, which owns the company.
“Their strategy was simple,” Ms. Healey said at a news conference. “The more drugs they sold, the more money they made, and the more people died.”
Ms. Healey said more than 670 Massachusetts residents who were prescribed Purdue’s opioids have died of overdoses since 2009. Her lawsuit seeks damages and penalties.
Purdue denied the allegations, arguing in a statement that Massachusetts wants to substitute its views in place of the judgment of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has approved the use of its products.
Opioids were involved in more than 42,000 overdose deaths in 2016, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Ms. Healey had been part of a group of 41 state attorneys general who were working together to investigate opioid manufacturers and distributors, including Purdue, and to negotiate settlements with the companies.
But in a May 8 letter, Ms. Healey’s office notified Purdue that while it would continue to engage in settlement talks, it believed the public deserved immediate resources to mitigate the crisis and planned to sue.
The letter was disclosed when six other states participating in the multistate investigation decided to sue Purdue on May 15. In total, it faces lawsuits by 24 states and the territory of Puerto Rico.
In 2007, Purdue and three executives pleaded guilty to federal charges related to the misbranding of OxyContin and agreed to pay a total of $634.5 million in penalties.
That year, Purdue also reached a $19.5 million settlement with 26 states, including Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. But Ms. Healey’s office alleges Purdue continued deceptively marketing opioids after 2007.
It can be tempting to write off insurer complaints about the overuse of certain drugs or other medical treatments as self-interested maneuvering by organizations whose primary concern is their own bottom line. But, as the OxyContin case shows, sometimes insurers are better placed than many others to make judgments about the need for certain medical treatments.