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Purdue’s Ad Agency Settles Oxycontin Lawsuit

For the very first time, a company that worked on Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin ads has settled a lawsuit claiming they falsely said opioids were safe, according to CNN.

Publicis, a French marketing firm, agreed to pay $350 million within two months and won’t work with any more opioid companies, according to New York Attorney General Letitia James. She and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser led the talks, joined by eight other states.

“For ten years, Publicis helped opioid makers like Purdue Pharma convince doctors to give out too many opioids, which made the opioid crisis worse and hurt communities everywhere,” said James. “Money can’t make up for the lives lost and the addiction caused, but with this deal, Publicis will stop their illegal actions.”

Why is a Marketing Firm Being Held Liable for Oxycontin?

A marketing firm can be held liable for the ads they create because they play a significant role in shaping the messages and strategies used to promote products or services. Regarding sensitive issues like healthcare, with strict regulations and ethical considerations, marketing firms must adhere to specific standards.

If the ads they create contain false or misleading information, especially regarding something as serious as the safety of drugs like opioids, it can lead to harmful consequences. For instance, if the marketing firm actively promotes a drug as safe and non-addictive when it’s not, it can contribute to overprescribing and addiction, exacerbating a public health crisis.

In the case of Purdue Pharma and its OxyContin marketing campaign, the marketing firm Publicis was involved in creating advertisements that allegedly downplayed the risks of addiction and encouraged doctors to prescribe the drug excessively. Such actions can be seen as contributing to the opioid epidemic, making the marketing firm liable for its role in the harm caused.

The Evolve to Excellence Campaign with Purdue

From 2010 to 2019, Publicis teamed up with McKinsey to make Purdue’s “Evolve to Excellence” campaign, promoting OxyContin to doctors who prescribed it most. McKinsey settled for $573 million in 2021 over its role in the crisis.

The campaign flooded doctors with messages saying OxyContin prevented addiction and abuse and encouraged higher doses, even when not needed, James said. Publicis made ads, pamphlets, and brochures for it.

Publicis said it didn’t admit to doing anything wrong and believed its actions were legal, but James disagreed. The company hopes the payment will help fight opioid addiction.

“We understand the bigger picture of our legal work,” Publicis said. “Fighting the opioid crisis in the United States needs everyone’s help, including industries, lawmakers, and communities. That’s why we reached this deal and won’t take on any more opioid projects.”

The part of the company that worked with Purdue, called Rosetta, has been closed for ten years.

A Legacy of Harm and Oxycontin

Purdue Pharma started selling OxyContin in the 1990s, claiming it wasn’t addictive. They’re blamed for making the opioid crisis worse. From 1999 to 2020, over 564,000 people died from opioid overdoses, according to the CDC.

The Sackler family, who owned Purdue, agreed in March 2023 to pay $5.5 billion to $6 billion over 18 years to help fight the crisis. But the Biden administration sued to stop it, calling it unfair to shield the Sacklers from lawsuits. In August 2023, the Supreme Court stopped Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy plan, and in December, they argued the case.

The Opioid Epidemic Still Rages On

The roots of the epidemic can be traced back to the widespread prescribing of opioid painkillers such as OxyContin, Vicodin, and Percocet by healthcare providers. Pharmaceutical companies aggressively marketed these drugs as safe and effective for managing chronic pain, leading to a surge in prescriptions. Opioids are highly addictive, and many patients become dependent on them, even when used as prescribed.

As opioid prescriptions soared, so did rates of misuse and addiction. Many individuals turned to illicit opioids like heroin as a cheaper and more accessible alternative.

Then, around 2018, the crisis took a deadly turn with the emergence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is far more potent than heroin and prescription opioids.

Fentanyl began to be mixed with heroin and other drugs, often without the user’s knowledge, leading to a spike in overdoses. Fentanyl is so potent that even a tiny amount can be fatal, and it has been responsible for a significant portion of opioid-related deaths in recent years.

The overdose crisis reached unprecedented levels in the late 2010s and continues to be a pressing public health issue.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), tens of thousands of Americans die from opioid overdoses each year, with fentanyl playing a significant role in many of these deaths.

The exact number of overdoses caused by fentanyl is challenging to determine precisely due to variations in reporting and the complexities of drug overdose investigations. Authorities estimate it to be in the tens of thousands annually.