Massachusetts sues Publicis Health, alleging it ‘fueled’ opioid crisis in state through its work for Purdue Pharma
The state of Massachusetts has filed a lawsuit against Publicis Groupe’s Publicis Health for its work with Purdue Pharma from 2010-2019, alleging it knowingly deployed “unfair and deceptive marketing schemes,” the suit claims, to help Purdue sell more OxyContin, in turn “fueling” the ongoing opioid crisis around the U.S.
According to the suit, during the nine-year span Purdue paid Publicis more than $50 million for marketing that State Attorney General Maura Healey alleges created a “public nuisance of opioid use disorder.” Healey’s lawsuit seeks civil penalties and restitution to victims in the state.
“Publicis convinced doctors to prescribe more OxyContin to more patients as the opioid epidemic was raging,” Healey said in a statement. “As a result, patients in Massachusetts suffered, overdosed, and died, while Publicis collected tens of millions of dollars.”
Purdue declined to comment. Publicis Health vigorously denies the allegations.
“This lawsuit is completely without basis,” a spokesman wrote in a statement. “All of our work was completely lawful. Publicis Health acted solely as an advertising agency. It was not a drug manufacturer, distributor, or consultant. Our role was limited to implementing Purdue’s advertising plan and buying media space.”
“The complaint does not identify a single statement made by Publicis Health as false, but instead relies on broad unfounded conclusions and a flawed public nuisance theory,” the spokesman continued. “Finally, it ignores the statute of limitations, which bars these claims.”
The spokesman went on to say that the complaint “cherrypicks unrelated statements” made through the course of its multi-year engagement with Purdue, taking conversations “out of context” to create a “completely false and misleading narrative.”
Among some of the specific allegations cited in the 68-page suit:
A 2015 email conversation cited in the lawsuit is claimed to have been exchanged among Christina Ceniza, Linda Ketchum-Pompili, and Bruce Rinderman, who are identified in the suit as Publicis staff. The email, it says, regards a crush-resistant formulation of OxyContin that the team was planning to market using a survey that found it reduced opioid use disorder. But then, the suit claims, Rinderman noticed the results actually showed the opposite. According to the suit, he brought it to Ceniza’s attention and she replied:
“Ugh – no you’re right. I was trying to figure out if maybe the % of OXC to overall illicit use of pain killers went down, but it didn’t. … Even if we can’t find the data, we can craft the message and tell the brand team what we WANT to say and see if their Medical Services group can come up with anything to support it?”
In another instance, the lawsuit claims that in 2016 Publicis worked with Purdue’s marketing team to script a training video of a model sales rep named “Ken” that Purdue’s reps around the country were supposed to emulate. In the video, Ken was scripted to “downplay” the risks of patients becoming addicted to OxyContin and “assure doctors that they were manageable,” the suit claims.
The lawsuit also states while knowing that “none of Purdue’s opioids were approved to treat specific diseases,” Publicis developed and implemented “Condition Campaigns” which the lawsuit claims were designed to direct prescribers searching online about diseases typically not associated with opioid remedies, such as low back pain and cancer pain, to Purdue’s opioid site.
Publicis also “humanized Purdue and its opioids” by creating “patient vignettes,” the lawsuit claims. The vignettes were designed to get doctors to “more easily recognize patients” who could be started on OxyContin and continually be prescribed higher doses over time. The lawsuit claims Publicis created a a vignette named “James, age 40” to “include a younger demographic.” James had his dose increased from 10 mg to 15 mg to 20 mg in a period of just three weeks, according to the lawsuit.
“Publicis facilitated the delivery of patient vignettes like James to prescribers, together with savings card information, to increase new prescriptions and keep patients on OxyContin for longer, using a special URL to track how many prescribers accessed the savings cards and measure the project’s effectiveness,” the lawsuit stated.
In March, Purdue filed a bankruptcy plan to resolve thousands of opioid lawsuits by restructuring the company into an entity that would steer profits to opioid victims, and require members of the Sackler family, who own the company, to contribute nearly $4.3 billion, as reported by Reuters.
Publicis Health isn’t the first company associated with Purdue to be sued. In February 2021, Purdue consultant McKinsey & Company agreed to pay $641 million to resolve lawsuits by all 50 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and five U.S. territories over its role in the opioid epidemic.
In 2020, electronic medical records company, Practice Fusion, agreed to pay the government $145 million as part of a settlement in which the company admitted to soliciting and receiving kickbacks from Purdue in exchange for using the tech company’s software to “influence physician prescribing of opioid medications,” according to a statement by the Department of Justice.