As the nation’s opioid crisis deepened over the last decade, drug makers and distributors worked to deflect attention from their own roles in creating widespread addiction, according to lawyers for hundreds of cities, counties, tribes and other entities suing key pharmaceutical industry players.
One drug distributor highlighted the roles of “pill mills,” unethical doctors and pharmacies that dished up narcotic painkillers by the millions, court records state. Another focused on prescriptions acquired illegally from friends and relatives.
But Purdue Pharma, the maker of the widely abused painkiller OxyContin, considered a different tack.
Internal documents from 2016 show company officials discussed diverting online traffic away from a series of stories published by the Los Angeles Times that detailed the company’s marketing of OxyContin and its links to the deadly opioid crisis.
“If Purdue doesn’t fill this vacuum, someone else will — and it won’t be Purdue’s narrative,” a member of the company’s digital support team wrote in a memo to Purdue officials, laying out a strategy to drive traffic to a friendly website, PurduePharmaFacts.com.
“By purchasing highly targeted strings of keywords that people are likely to use to find out more information about the articles, we can ensure that PurduePharmaFacts.com is at the top of a user’s search results,” a related PowerPoint presentation stated.
“We’ve tailored the recommendation to capture only people searching for information related to the Times articles and to not interfere with Purdue’s marketing efforts surrounding OxyContin or spark curiosity where there was none before,” it said.
It’s unclear if the strategy was carried out or, if it was, whether it was effective. PurduePharmaFacts.com does not appear to be a functioning website.
The company issued a statement late Wednesday saying it created “a dedicated website with the relevant facts for the public to view.
“This is a very standard practice used by companies and organizations to address inaccurate and unbalanced news coverage.”
The documents describing Purdue’s strategy were filed earlier in the day in U.S. District Court in Cleveland by attorneys for Cuyahoga and Stark counties in Ohio. They are among more than 1,500 governments and other entities that have sued key players in the opioid epidemic to recover their costs for services and other damages stemming from the addiction crisis.
The plaintiffs’ claims include that the drug industry contributed to the deadly opioid epidemic by deceptively marketing the highly addictive prescription painkillers.
The first of the lawsuits is scheduled for trial later this year.
“Throughout these public ‘messaging’ initiatives, the emphasis was on deflecting attention, blame or litigation away from the pharmaceutical industry for their role in recklessly distributing opioid products into the supply chain and ‘inoculating’ the industry from litigation — like this case,” lawyers for the Ohio counties wrote in Wednesday’s court filing.
The Times’ 2016 investigative series showed how decisions by Purdue, a Connecticut corporation owned by the Sackler family, fueled the opioid epidemic. The newspaper found that OxyContin, the company’s best-selling product, wears off hours earlier than its advertised 12-hour duration in many patients, exposing them to increased risk of addiction. It also described how the company’s lawyers and security department gathered extensive evidence suggesting specific doctors and pharmacies across the nation were engaged in drug trafficking, but did not shut off the flow of OxyContin to them and, in many cases, did not share the information with law enforcement.
Purdue, which by 2016 had collected more than $31 billion from OxyContin sales, disputed The Times’ findings.
U.S. opioid overdose deaths rose from 8,048 in 1999 to 47,600 in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Times staff writer Harriet Ryan contributed to this report.