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An OxyContin advertiser will pay $350 million in the first-ever opioid marketing settlement


By David Goldman, CNN

New York (CNN) — For the first time, an advertising company that worked on Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin account has settled a lawsuit that accused it of falsely marketing opioids as safe.

Publicis, a French marketing company, agreed to pay $350 million within the next two months and will not take on any more opioid clients, according to New York Attorney General Letitia James. She and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser led the settlement negotiations, which included a consortium of eight other states.

“For a decade, Publicis helped opioid manufacturers like Purdue Pharma convince doctors to overprescribe opioids, directly fueling the opioid crisis and causing the devastation of communities nationwide,” said James in a statement. “No amount of money can compensate for lives lost and addiction suffered, but with this agreement, Publicis will cease their illegal behavior.”

Publicis from 2010 through 2019 worked with consultancy McKinsey to develop Purdue’s “Evolve to Excellence” campaign, which advertised OxyContin to doctors who were most frequently prescribing the opioid. For its alleged role in the opioid crisis, McKinsey in 2021 agreed to pay $573 million to states as part of multiple settlements.

The “Evolve to Excellence” marketing scheme barraged doctors with messages that falsely claimed OxyContin deterred addiction and abuse and pushed physicians to increase patients’ doses – even when not medically appropriate, James said. Publicis created the advertisements, pamphlets and brochures for the campaign.

The company, in a statement, said it did not admit wrongdoing and defended its actions as lawful, a contention James disputes. But the company said it hopes the payment will help the effort to combat opioid addiction.

“We recognize the broader context in which that lawful work took place,” Publicis said in a statement. “The fight against the opioid crisis in the United States requires collaboration across industries, lawmakers, and communities, and we are committed to playing our part. That is why we worked to reach this agreement, and why we are also reaffirming our long-standing decision to turn down any future opioid-related projects.”

The company said the division that did the work for Purdue, called Rosetta, has been shut down for a decade.

Purdue Pharma first introduced the opioid drug OxyContin in the 1990s and promoted it as non-addictive. The company has been accused of helping to fuel the opioid epidemic in the United States, which is seen as a massive public health crisis. Between 1999 and 2020, more than 564,000 people died from an opioid overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Sackler family, which controlled Purdue, agreed to a bankruptcy deal in March 2023 that would have the family pay out between $5.5 billion to $6 billion over 18 years to help fight the ongoing opioid epidemic. Most of the money would go to states, local governments and Native American tribes.

But the Biden administration sued to block the deal, calling it an “unprecedented” arrangement that would ultimately offer the Sackler family broad protection from opioid-related civil claims. In August 2023, the Supreme Court blocked Purdue Pharma from going forward with bankruptcy proceedings, and it heard the case in December in contentious oral arguments.

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