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California sues opioid company, alleging ‘unlawful marketing’ contributed to 2,000 overdoses

California is suing the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, alleging that its opioid painkillers contributed to the deaths of more than 2,000 Californians.

The lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court makes California the latest among dozens of states that have taken similar legal action against the company, best known for developing the drug OxyContin. The filing also targets the company’s former president and board member Richard S. Sackler.

“The opioid crisis is devastating our communities throughout the country and it’s killing our loved ones,” Attorney General Xavier Becerra said in announcing the lawsuit. “The start of this crisis can be traced back to Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family and their pursuit of profits. (They) traded the health and well-being of Californians for profit and created an unprecedented national public health crisis in the process.“

According to the attorney general’s office, Purdue earned $1.8 billion in 2017, the same year that California recorded 2,196 opioid-related overdose deaths and more than 4,000 emergency room visits in the state.

Becerra’s lawsuit alleges “unlawful practices in the marketing, sale, and distribution of opioids” has led healthcare professionals and patients to prescribe and rely on the agency’s drugs as a safe way to cure chronic pain. Becerra said Purdue’s “misleading marketing and sales practices” amounts to public nuisance violations.

California’s recorded overdoses reflect a national crisis of ongoing opioid deaths and addiction. More than 47,000 people died from opioids in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Opioid manufacturers and doctors have come under scrutiny in recent years for their role in prescribing pain killers to patients who experience ongoing pain. President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency in 2017.

Purdue issued a statement saying that the company and former directors “vigorously deny the allegations” and will continue to “defend themselves (against) these misleading attacks.”

The company continued that Becerra’s suit disregards that “Purdue’s OxyContin represents less than 2 percent of total opioid prescriptions” and that the drug is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and continues to be regulated by federal agencies.

“The complaint is part of a continuing effort to try these cases in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system,” the statement read. “Such allegations demand clear evidence linking the conduct alleged to the harm described, but we believe the state fails to show such causation and offers little evidence to support its sweeping legal claims.”

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Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.