Crime & Courts

South Carolina sues company that makes OxyContin

Lawsuit tackles opioid addiction

Legislator who lost son to addiction backs lawsuit against pharmaceutical company filed by SC Attorney General Alan Wilson.
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Legislator who lost son to addiction backs lawsuit against pharmaceutical company filed by SC Attorney General Alan Wilson.

South Carolina is suing a pharmaceutical company that makes opioids, alleging its deceptive marketing has contributed to more addiction and a rising death toll from opioid overdoses.

Attorney General Alan Wilson announced on Tuesday that the state has become the latest to sue Purdue Pharma. The company is a manufacturer of OxyContin among other drugs and, Wilson said, has profited by misleading doctors and others about the effectiveness and risks of its opioids.

“(M)y office is obligated to take action as South Carolinians continue to fall victim to Purdue’s deceptive marketing of its highly addictive opioid products without care for the lives and families it is jeopardizing,” Wilson said of the suit filed in Richland County.

He would not say how much money the state is seeking. But Wilson said Purdue provides more opioids, largely through Medicaid, than any other drugmaker in South Carolina.

Purdue’s Medicaid market share in South Carolina is 47 percent through the first quarter of 2017, the attorney general’s office said. The company’s market share of all branded drugs in the state has risen to 81 percent, according to figures from Wilson’s office.

The state logged the ninth-highest rate of opioid prescriptions in the nation last year, Wilson said. And since 2011, more than 3,000 South Carolinians have died from prescription opioid overdoses, according to prosecutors.

Purdue, in a statement to the Associated Press, said, “While we vigorously deny the allegations, we share South Carolina officials’ concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions.”

Opioids are prescription narcotics with properties similar to opium and heroin. They can ease pain but create “an addictive euphoric high,” according to the suit.

Wilson, calling the drug problem an opioid epidemic, said, “We do not believe that a single lawsuit against a single company will fix the problem.”

The Unfair Trade Practices law is the basis of the suit. Wilson said Purdue has exaggerated how well its drugs work and dismissed opioid addiction as a “pseudo addiction.”

Purdue overstated the benefits of opioids compared with other ways to manage pain “to increase its market share and profits,” Wilson said.

He also said the company has violated a 2007 consent agreement signed with South Carolina and more than a dozen states over allegations involving the promotion of OxyContin. Purdue was accused then of encouraging doctors to prescribe OxyContin for unapproved uses and failing to disclose its potential for addiction. The company admitted no fault.

Wilson, through the new suit, contends Purdue continued to violate the agreement by, among other things, telling doctors that long-term use of opioids relieved pain without having studies to back the claim. The longest controlled study lasted 16 weeks, Wilson said.

Standing beside Wilson at a Tuesday morning news conference to announce the suit were parents who said their children died because of opioids.

Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Greenville, has become the S.C. face of the opioid addiction problem. His son Josh died on Easter Sunday in 2015 after recovering following years of fighting an opioid addiction, “all just to relapse and not make it through that one last attempt.”

Roy Davenport’s 38-year-old son Scott was killed by fentanyl after years of a heroin addiction, the elder Davenport said.

The game changer in preventing more opioid deaths could lie in understanding what happens to the body

Davenport is upset the Legislature “watered down” a bill that would create a criminal charge called “homicide by drug delivery” to punish street dealers who distribute drugs like the super-deadly fentanyl.

“They’re the ones who are selling fentanyl even though they know it will kill,” Davenport said of dealers.

Committees in the House and Senate reduced the proposed charge to involuntary manslaughter and the maximum penalty to five years from the proposed 30 years, the Upstate businessman said.

He and Bedingfield will try again in the upcoming session to push through a tougher law.