OxyContin maker seeks to bottle up Oregon records trove

Purdue is the maker of the painkiller OxyContin

OxyContin pills are arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)
OxyContin pills are arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — As Multnomah County tries to put a spotlight on drug manufacturers with a lawsuit over the opioid epidemic, the company faulted for starting that epidemic has busily been suing the state of Oregon to keep a trove of its secrets from being revealed.

In July, one month before the county sued Purdue Pharma and other manufacturers and doctors for $250 million over alleged improper marketing of opioids locally, Purdue quietly sued the state Department of Justice, to block the release of records detailing its local marketing of opioids.

The suit filed by Purdue, the maker of the painkiller OxyContin, is just the latest chapter in more than a decade of its litigation with the state of Oregon. That battle shows the extent to which Multnomah County, which notched a $9 million settlement last year with a national mortgage registry company, is now taking on a far larger and more powerful foe.

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The Purdue lawsuit is also significant because the 601,375 pages of the company’s internal records amassed by Oregon Department of Justice lawyers could come in very handy for Multnomah County’s case, says Jeffrey Dobbins, who teaches civil procedure at Willamette University College of Law in Salem.

Otherwise, the county likely faces extensive legal battles to get the documents directly from the company to argue its case.

“Trying to get documents out of somebody who has already managed to extract them from the defendant is a lot easier, generally speaking, than trying to get them from the defendant themselves,” Dobbins says.

Oregon vs. opioids

The Oregon DOJ has been on the trail of opioid manufacturers since 2004. That’s when one of its lawyers, David Hart, sent a demand for documents from Purdue as part of an investigation into misleading marketing of Purdue’s flagship drug, OxyContin, since its federal approval in 1995.

Based in part on Oregon’s work, a coalition of 26 states won a $19.5 million settlement against Purdue based on evidence of an aggressive and “deceptive” marketing campaign to persuade doctors that Oxy was not that addictive.

Previous to the Purdue marketing, “many physicians were reluctant to prescribe opioids on a long-term basis for common chronic conditions because of concerns about abuse and addiction,” Hart testified before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee last year. “While this inhibition was already breaking down before OxyContin was introduced, after its introduction, this breakdown accelerated, fueled in part by Purdue Pharma’s aggressive marketing and promotion of the drug.”

The death toll has been staggering, officials say. In the nine-year span ending in 2015, Multnomah County counts nearly 900 opioid-related deaths.

In a four-year span ending in 2013, Oregon attributed 2,226 deaths to prescription opioid drug overdose.

The Oregon-led settlement in 2007 had sought to slow that pace by requiring the company to agree to market its products ethically and set up programs to combat addiction. And the state has tried to monitor the company since then, repeatedly requesting documents to see if the company has kept its promises.

It’s those documents that the company is worried about.

In March, a producer with the investigative TV news program “60 Minutes” requested Oregon’s Purdue records. The company sued to block their release, calling them “trade secrets.”

Asked about the suit, a Purdue spokesman issued the following statement: “As part of its ongoing commitment to cooperate with the government’s investigation, Purdue complied with several requests for information by providing tens of thousands of pages of proprietary documents that included trade secrets and both competitive and private personal medical information, which the government agreed would be kept confidential. In violation of signed confidentiality agreements, the department now intends to release thousands of those documents and left us no alternative but to file this complaint.”

But Oregon has not backed off, arguing in court that the Purdue records should be disclosed. “In the midst of the opioid crisis that is raging through our nation, {Purdue} seeks to prevent public disclosure of documents that would shed light on this emergency,” argued DOJ in a brief filed Friday.

Not only that, but last month Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum announced a new, 41-state investigation of Purdue and other companies implicated in the opioid epidemic.

Sharon Meieran, a Multnomah County commissioner and emergency room doctor who’s made the opioid epidemic a personal crusade, said the story of Oregon’s battles with Purdue shows how officials have failed to make opioid manufacturers change their ways.

“This demonstrates the need for new strategies to pursue them, because they are not going lightly,” she says.