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Massachusetts Sues Publicis Groupe for Marketing OxyContin

— May 13, 2021

AG Maura Healey files lawsuit against marketing group for allegedly fueling the opioid crisis.

Massachusetts is suing a unit of French advertising company Publicis Groupe SA, saying the company is, in part, responsible for fueling the U.S. opioid crisis by using deceptive marketing practices to help Purdue Pharma sell OxyContin.  The state’s attorney general Maura Healey said Publicis “created a public nuisance from 2010 to 2019 through its work for drug makers on campaigns to persuade doctors to prescribe more opioids, including to patients who did not need them.”

Publicis Groupe companies currently include Digitas Health, Heartbeat, insync, Langland, Payer Sciences, PlowShare Group, Publicis Health France, Publicis Health Media, Razorfish Health, Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, and Verilogue.   In 2016, Publicis proposed Purdue shut down its sales force to “fully embrace a deeper-held responsibility,” according to Healey, and yet, the company continued to accept money from the drug maker.  In total, the firm made more than $50 million in its work with Purdue.

Massachusetts Sues Publicis Groupe for Marketing OxyContin
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

“They knew what they were doing was wrong, they made the opioid crisis worse, and they kept cashing Purdue’s checks,” Healey explained. “What they did was wrong.  It hurt people.  It killed people.  Today’s lawsuit reveals important new information about the misconduct that caused the opioid crisis, and it’s another step towards getting accountability for the families around Massachusetts who have been hurt.”

A Publicis spokesperson responded that there was “no legal basis for the lawsuit,” citing the expiration of the statute of limitations.

However, the attorney general’s office insisted, “Responsibility for the opioid crisis runs across the industry, from Purdue and the Sacklers to consultants and partners like McKinsey and Publicis.” Healey accused the company of “unprecedented greed and exploitation.”

The state’s complaint reads, “Publicis Groupe helped create a public nuisance of opioid use disorder, overdose, and death.  By design, Publicis’s schemes worked to counter public health measures intended to reduce unnecessary opioid use, because more opioid use generated more profits for Publicis’s opioid clients.”

Amanda Pustilnik, of the Center for Law, Brain & Behavior at Massachusetts General Hospital, explains, “The story of the opioid epidemic is often misrepresented as a story of irresponsible patients and over-prescribing doctors.  But this prosecution gets at the heart of the matter.  Patients and doctors were not, on average, irresponsible. They acted under the influence of a concerted plan of misinformation and over-promotion orchestrated up and down the supply chain for these medications.”

In February of this year, consulting firm McKinsey & Co. agreed to pay $573 million to settle allegations it was involved in the opioid crisis.  Medical records company Practice Fusion admitted to participating in a criminal conspiracy and agreed to pay the U.S. government $145 million in 2020.  This illustrates the complex web of defendants allegedly involved in fueling the crisis.

Assistant Attorney General Jenny Wojewoda said the lawsuit seeks civil penalties and restitution to victims, but explained, “We have not set a figure on damages.”  She added, “But they are immense.  It would certainly be a significant amount of money.”

Since 2010 some 15,000 people have died of overdoses just in Massachusetts.  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said nearly 500,000 people died from opioid overdoses from 1999 to 2019 across the U.S.


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