Accusing a national drug manufacturer of helping to fuel the deadly opioid crisis, state Attorney General Ken Paxton announced Tuesday that Texas has filed suit against Purdue Pharma and is considering taking legal action against other drugmakers as well.
Filed in state District Court in Travis County, the lawsuit accused Purdue Pharma of violating state law by misrepresenting the risk of addiction associated with its opioids, particularly OxyContin, in a “sophisticated marketing scheme aimed at consumers and health care providers alike,” Paxton said.
“In the face of abundant evidence showing that the drug was dangerous, Purdue saw fit to exchange destroyed lives for financial gain,” Paxton said in an Austin news conference. “We must make those who caused the opioid crisis feel the pain that they have inflicted on our communities.”
As the national death toll from opioid addiction topped 350,000 since 1999, hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against drug manufacturers and distributors in federal courts across the nation — cases that have been consolidated under one judge in Cleveland.
Paxton said his office filed suit in Travis County because a state law known as the Deceptive Trade Practices Act can provide powerful leverage — the ability to get an injunction barring Purdue from continued misrepresentation of its painkillers and penalties of up to $20,000 per violation.
“We felt like this case needed to be tried under Texas law and in Texas courts,” he said, adding that it is too early to know how many violations, and how much in penalties, his lawyers will seek under the lawsuit.
Democrats, however, said Paxton has been late responding to a national epidemic that killed people at a rate of 116 per day in 2016 — five times the rate of opioid-related overdoses in 1999, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Justin Nelson, a Democrat hoping to unseat Paxton in the November election, called the lawsuit window dressing to hide the Republican’s lack of attention to the health crisis.
“Lawsuits in other jurisdictions have been much stronger than this one, including the suit filed by Oklahoma nearly a year ago,” Nelson said. “This lawsuit is too little, too late for so many Texas families suffering from the opioid crisis.”
Paxton said the lawsuit was filed as soon as possible after his lawyers examined information collected via investigative subpoenas served last year on eight pharmaceutical companies by attorneys general in 41 states, including Texas. Additional action is likely, he said.
“Purdue is far from the only culprit, and my office continues to investigate other players,” Paxton said, adding that he “would not be surprised” if similar action is taken against other drugmakers in the future.
Purdue Pharma has denied similar accusations contained in other lawsuits, saying its products make up only 2 percent of all prescribed opioids and had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
“As a company grounded in science, we must balance patient access to FDA-approved medicines, while working collaboratively to solve this public health challenge,” the company, based in Stamford, Conn., said in a written statement in response to a lawsuit by Alabama in February.
According to the CDC, prescribed and illegal opioids — including heroin, fentanyl and oxycodone — are involved in two-thirds of all overdose deaths across the nation, and President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis to be a public health emergency in October.
While many other states have been harder hit, particularly West Virginia and Ohio, opioid overdoses killed 1,375 Texans in 2016, while all overdose deaths rose 7.4 percent in Texas from the year before, according to the CDC and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
In addition to Paxton’s legal action, a dozen other counties — including Travis County — have filed lawsuits in state courts accusing 18 opioid manufacturers and related distributors of making misleading statements about the risks posed by prescription opioids, leading to addiction, abuse and the use of illegal drugs such as heroin.
In April, the drug companies sought to move all of the lawsuits, including any filed in the future, to one Texas court, arguing that the move would save time and effort while avoiding conflicting pretrial rulings.
Action on all of the lawsuits has been halted while the request — which is not opposed by most of the counties — is being considered by the five-judge multidistrict litigation panel.
Patrick Sweeten, Paxton’s senior counsel for civil litigation, told the panel last week that his office will oppose lumping the state lawsuit in with the county lawsuits. If that is denied, Sweeten requested that all of the lawsuits be heard by a court in Travis County.