AG Racine Sues Purdue Pharma and Richard Sackler for Misleading District Patients and Doctors to Increase Opioid Drug Sales

OAG Alleges Purdue Falsely Claimed That Opioids Are Not Addictive, Aggressively Pushed Higher Drug Dosages to Drive Profits

WASHINGTON, D.C.Attorney General Karl A. Racine today sued opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma L.P., Purdue Pharma Inc., and a former top executive, Dr. Richard Sackler, for making false and misleading claims about the safety and effectiveness of opioids to get more people to take these addictive drugs and to increase profits. In its lawsuit, the Office of the Attorney General (OAG) alleges that Purdue and Richard Sackler falsely claimed that opioids are not addictive and misled District doctors and patients about the benefits and potential harms of these drugs. The defendants also allegedly pushed doctors to prescribe opioids for longer periods and at higher doses, despite strong evidence that long-term use of opioids does more harm than good and without adequate warning about risks of overdose and death. OAG is seeking injunctive and monetary relief and is asking the court to order Purdue and Richard Sackler to give up all revenues, profits, and gains achieved through violations of the District’s consumer protection laws.

“Purdue Pharma and its top executives misled doctors, patients, and communities in pursuit of massive profits and destroyed countless lives in the process,” said AG Racine. “Purdue recklessly and unlawfully promoted dangerous drugs and endangered District residents. We’ve filed suit now to hold them accountable.”

Purdue Pharma Inc. and Purdue Pharma L.P. are partner companies controlled by the Sackler families. They manufacture, promote, and sell prescription and over-the-counter drugs, including prescription opioids. Richard Sackler is a medical doctor and the son of one of Purdue’s founders. He held high-level positions at Purdue, including President and Co-Chairman of the Board, from the 1980s through mid-2018, and was actively involved in setting sales targets and shaping marketing strategy. 

Beginning in the 1990s, Purdue worked to counter the accurate perception among doctors and patients that opioids are highly addictive and potentially dangerous. To increase drug sales, the company ran a national public relations campaign focused on the importance of treating pain and promoted the idea that pain was being under-treated. Purdue aggressively marketed their best-selling drug, OxyContin, across the country, including in the District of Columbia.

In 2007, Purdue entered into a Consent Judgment with the District and 25 states to resolve allegations of deceptive marketing, promotion, and sales of OxyContin. The judgment required Purdue to market and promote OxyContin only for FDA-approved uses and prohibited the company from making any false, misleading or deceptive claims regarding OxyContin, among other provisions.

Since the 2007 judgment, Purdue continued to aggressively market opioids including Butrans, Dilaudid, Hysingla ER, MS Contin, OxyContin, and Ryzolt in the District. Between 2007 and 2015, Purdue sales representatives made at least 8,037 visits to District health care providers and sold tens of millions of units of opioids in D.C., including Oxycodone and OxyContin, between 2008 and 2017.

OAG alleges that Purdue and Richard Sackler systematically engaged in deceptive and misleading practices in violation of the District’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act and harmed District residents by:

  • Falsely claiming opioids are not addictive: Purdue repeatedly misrepresented the high risk of addiction posed by opioids. For example, a Purdue-funded book targeted at veterans (Exit Wounds, A Survival Guide to Pain Management for Returning Veterans and Their Families) repeated claims that “[l]ong experience with opioids shows that people who are not predisposed to addiction are unlikely to become addicted to opioid pain medications.” Purdue also implied that patients could only become addicted to opioids if they used them to get “high,” and not if they used them as directed to treat pain. In reality, over 70 percent of those who become opioid dependent begin with prescription pain medication.
  • Falsely claiming opioids are safer than over-the-counter painkillers: Purdue deceptively claimed that opioids are safer and more effective than over-the-counter painkillers and warned about potential side-effects of drugs like acetaminophen and aspirin while failing to mention the serious risks posed by side effects of opioids, including death, overdose, and bone fractures. Purdue also marketed opioids as a solution for many types of chronic pain and made explicit claims that side effects were rare, despite the fact that 96 percent of people who take opioids for chronic pain experience side effects.
  • Pushing doctors to prescribe opioids for longer periods and at higher doses: Purdue pushed doctors to prescribe opioids for longer periods and at higher doses despite strong scientific evidence that long-term use of opioids does more harm than good, and despite increased danger to patients taking higher doses. Purdue also launched a major sales campaign to encourage doctors to continue prescribing higher doses—which increased Purdue’s profits at the expense of patients. Research, summarized in the 2016 CDC guidelines, has cautioned against prescribing high-dose opioids, noting that high doses increased overdose risks but did not better control pain.
  • Promoting the false idea that signs of opioid addiction could be treated with more opioids: Instead of acknowledging that some patients were becoming addicted to their opioids, Purdue promoted the false idea that what appeared to be addiction might instead be caused by under-treated pain. They called this “psuedoaddiction.” In marketing materials distributed to District doctors and on at least one sales call to a District medical facility, Purdue and its representatives suggested that when patients exhibited drug-seeking behavior, doctors should consider simply treating them with higher doses of opioids to solve the problem. They repeated this false claim in a pamphlet called “Responsible Opioid Prescribing,” which was distributed to every licensed doctor in the District.

The full complaint is available at:

The District is seeking a court order to permanently stop Purdue and Richard Sackler from violating the District’s Consumer Protection Procedures Act and to force the company to give up all revenues, profits, and gains achieved through violations of the law. It is also seeking penalties of up to $5,000 per violation of the law.

In addition to the lawsuit filed by District of Columbia AG Karl Racine, California AG Xavier Becerra, Hawaii AG Clare Connors, and Maine AG Aaron Frey each filed individual suits against Purdue today. These states join more than 40 others, and about 2,000 local and tribal governments, that have already filed lawsuits against Purdue for fueling the opioid epidemic.