Publicis faces legal challenge over US opioid marketing

oxycontinPublicis Groupe has become embroiled in a US lawsuit against its former client Purdue Pharma LP, in what is claimed to be an unprecedented attempt to sue an agency for its part in marketing a manufacturer’s products.

The case centres on a Publicis Health marketing campaign for Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin, amid allegations that the activity helped to fuel the US opioid epidemic.

More than 3,300 lawsuits are believed to have been filed in the US by state and local governments seeking to hold drug companies responsible for the epidemic. According to the US government, opioids triggered nearly 500,000 overdose deaths from 1999 to 2019.

In Massachusetts, attorney general General Maura Healey’s complaint, filed in May, alleges that Publicis “played an integral part in developing marketing strategies” to boost opioid sales from 2010 to 2019.

Publicis challenged the claims last week, insisting Healey’s allegations were “conclusory” and that she had “mischaracterised documents”.

But Suffolk County Superior Court Judge Brian Davis said Healey brought “non-speculative” claims under the state’s public nuisance law and consumer protection statute that could move forward.

Davis said the marketing campaigns were designed to get doctors “to use more OxyContin, prescribe higher doses and prescribe it for longer periods of time for patients”.

In response, Healey said she was pleased Davis “rejected Publicis’ attempt to skirt responsibility for its marketing campaigns”.

However, Publicis said in a statement its work was “completely lawful” and that nothing it did was deceptive.

The agency’s lawyer, David Anders of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, argued that Purdue, not Publicis, dictated the content of its marketing. “No advertiser has ever been held responsible in these circumstances,” he claimed.

Publicis’ case has not been helped by the fact that consultancy McKinsey & Co has already agreed to pay $641m to resolve claims by some states that it helped Purdue and other drug makers design marketing plans and boost painkiller sales.

In October last year, Purdue reached a settlement potentially worth $8.3bn, after admitting it “knowingly and intentionally conspired and agreed with others to aid and abet” doctors dispensing medication “without a legitimate medical purpose.”

Members of the Sackler family have additionally paid $225m and the company has now closed.

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