The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office has filed a lawsuit against several members of a major pharmaceutical company’s founding family, accusing them of lying and using bad science for decades to increase sales of OxyContin and other addictive opioid pain medications.

According to State Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, the greed of eight members of Purdue Pharma’s Sackler family helped to cause the opioid abuse epidemic that continues to claim lives in New Jersey and across the nation.

“In 2017 we had over 2,700 drug overdose deaths, the majority of which were heroin and opioid related, and in 2018 that number went up to 3,100, so we are committed at the Attorney General’s Office to holding all parties accountable that are contributing, or have contributed to this crisis," Grewal said.

Grewal said the suit, filed Thursday in Superior Court in Essex County, accuses the Sacklers of “seeking to become unimaginably rich by deceptively promoting their company’s opioid pain medications as rarely addictive, encouraging risking prescribing practices and targeting vulnerable patient populations including the elderly.”

“What’s most unconscionable about their conduct is the length of it — it’s over 20-plus years of misconduct," Grewal said. "This deception started in the early '90s.”

The complaint, nearly 200 pages, alleges each of the Sacklers named in the lawsuit actively took part in a well-orchestrated campaign to deceive doctors about the risks and benefits of OxyContin and other opioid drugs to treat chronic pain.

“They created this epidemic. They helped fuel it along with other pharma companies, through their deceptive and unconscionable practices that we have laid out plainly in our complaint," Grewal said.

During a telephone press conference call, Grewal said the Sacklers were aware of the dangers of prescribing these medications for long-term pain relief, but pressed forward with what he described as a ‘small army’ of company employees to tout the benefits of the drugs in a deceitful and untrue manner.

“They’re charged with three violations of our Consumer Fraud Act, which holds them accountable for their deceptive conduct, their material misrepresentation when it comes to OxyContin," he said.

According to the AG’s office, Purdue Pharma makes several opioid pain medications, including Butrans and Hysingla ER, but the company’s most popular opioid pain medication and biggest seller is OxyContin.

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The lawsuit also alleges one count of violating the State’s False Claims Act.

The defendants named in the 4 count lawsuit include former Purdue CEO and President Dr. Richard Sackler, who was also Purdue’s head of research and development for nearly 10 years; Jonathan D. Sackler; Dr. Kathe Sackler; Ilene Sackler Lefcourt; Mortimer D.A. Sackler; Beverly Sackler; Theresa Sackler; and David A. Sackler.

According to  Grewal, all of the defendants served on the Purdue Pharma Board of Directors for long periods of time, before leaving in 2017 and 2018.

He said even when questions were raised about the safety of OxyContin and other medications years ago, the Sacklers continued “to push out these highly powerful drugs based on false studies that they funded, based on websites that they put up.”

Grewal said when patients using OxyContin and other opioids could no longer afford their medications, many turned to heroin to satisfy their addition and some died of drug overdoses.

According to the Attorney General’s Office, the lawsuit “seeks monetary damages for false claims, maximum statutory penalties under the Consumer Fraud Act and the False Claims Act, disgorgement of any ill-gotten gains, and other relief as contribution for the costly solutions -- including addiction treatment and prescriber education — required to abate the opioid crisis in New Jersey.”

A separate lawsuit filed by New Jersey against Purdue Pharma in 2017 is still proceeding.

When asked to comment on the lawsuit, Nikki Ritchie, a spokeswoman for the Sackler family issued the following emailed response:

“This baseless lawsuit is yet another misguided attempt to place blame where it does not belong for a complex public health crisis. We strongly deny these allegations, which are inconsistent with the factual record, and will vigorously defend against them.

We have always acted properly and are committed to supporting solutions that save lives by preventing addiction and abuse of prescription medicines and treating those who are suffering from addiction.

Solving this crisis requires collaboration and focus on the real problems our nation needs to address — it will not be solved through litigation. Government data makes clear that the opioid crisis is growing rapidly because of illicit fentanyl smuggled in from China and Mexico – and headline-seeking lawsuits like this only distract from the important task of identifying real solutions to that crisis.”

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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