State of Massachusetts sues Multinational Marketing Firm Publicis Health for Alleged Role in Fueling the Opioid Crisis

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has filed a lawsuit against Publicis Health, LLC, a significant player in the American drug marketing industry, alleging it designed and deployed unfair and deceptive marketing schemes to help Purdue Pharma sell more OxyContin, including in Massachusetts

In a complaint filed in Suffolk Superior Court on the 6 May, AG Healey alleges that from 2010 to 2019, Publicis – a subsidiary of global advertising conglomerate Publicis Groupe – partnered with Purdue on dozens of contracts, collecting more than $50 million in exchange for marketing schemes to get doctors to prescribe Purdue’s opioids to more patients, in higher doses, for longer periods of time.

“Responsibility for the opioid crisis runs across the industry, from Purdue and the Sacklers, to consultants and partners like McKinsey and Publicis,” said AG Healey. “Publicis convinced doctors to prescribe more OxyContin to more patients as the opioid epidemic was raging. As a result, patients in Massachusetts suffered, overdosed, and died, while Publicis collected tens of millions of dollars.”  

The AG’s complaint alleges that, over its decade-long partnership with Purdue, Publicis engaged in myriad unfair and deceptive strategies that influenced OxyContin prescribing across the nation, including in Massachusetts. In particular, Publicis:

  • Devised marketing strategies to combat prescribers’ hesitancy to prescribe OxyContin, including materials used to train and assist Purdue sales reps in detailing doctors;
  • Wrote and facilitated the delivery of thousands of unfair and deceptive emails to prescribers, including messages designed to get doctors to convert more patients to OxyContin from lower dose, short-acting opioids, and increase existing patients’ doses and duration on the drug, without regard for the increased risk;
  • Developed strategies to counter the 2016 CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain and maintain OxyContin prescribing levels;
  • Told Purdue how to target the most dangerous high prescribers; and
  • Helped Purdue increase the number of patients on OxyContin by placing ads for OxyContin right in patients’ electronic medical records, including at the point-of-prescribing. 

Publicis also partnered with Purdue’s internal marketing team to “humanize” the OxyContin brand by creating patient vignettes to get doctors to recognize patients who could be started on OxyContin. Publicis developed one patient vignette, “James,” age 40, to target a younger demographic. Publicis designed the “James” patient example to have his dose increased from 10 mg to 15 mg to 20 mg, in a period of just three weeks. Publicis devised marketing plans to deliver patient vignettes like James to prescribers, including through Purdue sales rep visits with doctors.

Publicis carried out the misconduct alleged in the complaint under several trade names, including Rosetta and Razorfish Health.

This lawsuit is the latest action AG Healey has taken to combat the opioid epidemic and hold accountable those who are responsible for creating and fueling the crisis. Since taking office, AG Healey has prioritized combating the opioid epidemic through a multi-disciplinary approach that includes enforcement, policy, prevention, and education efforts.

In a statement, a spokesperson with Publicis Health said the lawsuit is “completely without basis.”

“We proudly support organizations fighting the opioid epidemic in Massachusetts and across the country,” the spokesperson said. “All of our work was completely lawful. Publicis Health acted solely as an advertising agency. It was not a drug manufacturer, distributor or consultant. Our role was limited to implementing Purdue’s advertising plan and buying media space. We look forward to a court determining there is absolutely no legal basis that supports this lawsuit.”

 

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