The New Hampshire Attorney General’s office is investigating marketing claims by the manufacturers of prescription opioids, action that could lead to lawsuits against the companies for deceiving physicians and patients about the drugs.
The investigation is focused on whether the drug makers played down the risks of opioid addiction while overstating the benefits as a long-term treatment for chronic pain. Attorney General Joe Foster said investigators will look into allegations that fraudulent marketing practices prevented patients from making informed decisions about the drugs.
“The question is what kind of marketing was done, what was said to our physicians, how were they educated,” Foster said.
The investigation is the latest in a string of initiatives aimed at what public officials say is the state’s top public-health challenge. Opioid overdoses killed 325 people in New Hampshire in 2014, triggering calls more treatment, closer scrutiny of how physicians prescribe the drugs, and other measures.
At a press conference Tuesday on expanded access to the overdose-reversal drug Narcan, Gov. Maggie Hassan said the investigation is one way to educate the public and providers about the “addictive nature” of prescription painkillers.
“We want to make sure, as we would with anything sold that could have such a significant impact, that people understand that opioids even when prescribed appropriately for pain can have a truly quick addictive impact, and we need to be aware of that,” she said.
Several states, including Kentucky and California, are attempting to hold drug makers accountable for alleged overprescribing of prescription opioids, which is being linked to a nationwide resurgence in heroin use.
In 2007, three Purdue executives pleaded guilty to criminal charges that they misled federal regulators and the public about OxyContin’s potential for abuse. The company agreed to pay $635 million in fines, including $20 million to reimburse the Medicaid programs of more than two dozen states.
Earlier this year, a federal judge dismissed allegations by the city of Chicago against four drug makers, including Endo and Actavis, which makes Kadian, a form of extended-release morphine. The city’s suit, however, continues against Purdue.
The Chicago case is being handled by Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, a national class-action firm that has been retained by New Hampshire's attorney general to assist in its investigation.
The inquiry is expected to take “ a long time,” Foster said, while producing voluminous records on the prescribing patterns of thousands of New Hampshire physicians.