Minnesota sues firm over ‘brazen’ marketing of opioid painkiller

Published 8:08 pm Wednesday, May 30, 2018

By Jon Collins, Minnesota Public Radio News


Minnesota’s attorney general and the state’s Board of Pharmacy sued a pharmaceutical company Wednesday, alleging it illegally marketed a fentanyl painkiller and violated state restrictions on giving doctors gifts.

Email newsletter signup

The lawsuit says the painkiller was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug administration to treat pain in cancer patients but that Arizona-based Insys Therapeutics marketed it for other conditions and at higher doses.

It’s the state’s first lawsuit targeting a pharmaceutical company related to the manufacture or distribution of opioids.

In Minnesota, Insys sold $4.7 million of the painkiller under the brand name Subsys between July 2013 and February 2017. It’s an under-the-tongue spray. It was approved by the FDA for “management of breakthrough pain in cancer patients” who are already tolerant to opioids.

But Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson said Insys “encouraged physicians to prescribe this highly-potent fentanyl product to patients who didn’t have cancer, even though it was only approved for severe breakthrough pain in cancer patients.”

The company, she added, also paid non-oncologists money to get doctors prescribing the drug. Swanson said they were described as speaker fees “to skirt a Minnesota law that prohibits pharmaceutical companies from paying gifts to doctors, even though the company was unable to provide evidence that some of the supposed ‘speeches’ had any audience other than the sales agent or physician’s office staff.”

Swanson told reporters Insys was “really engaging in some very terrible conduct to make money for themselves without caring for their patients … it’s as brazen a conduct as you can imagine from a pharmaceutical company.”

Seventeen doctors in Minnesota prescribed the drug, but just two accepted speaker fees from the company, and they’ve been referred to the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice, Swanson said, adding that other investigations are ongoing.

The Minnesota Board of Pharmacy believes the company violated the state’s gift ban, and that a doctor talking to a room with only pharmaceutical industry representatives doesn’t count as a “speaker,” said Cody Wiberg, the board’s executive director.

Insys did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the suit.

Swanson last year joined with dozen of other attorney generals in a national investigation of companies that manufacture and distribute opioid painkillers.

Opioids are the family of drugs that include everything from prescription painkillers like OxyContin to street drugs like heroin. About 40,000 Americans now die each year after overdosing on opioids.

A number of other states have recently filed suit against OxyContin-manufacturer Purdue Pharmafor their marketing of the drugs.

Other lawsuits have already been filed by local government bodies in the state.

About 20 Minnesota counties announced plans late last year to file suit against pharmaceutical companies that manufacture opioids. Minneapolis and St. Paul have also explored joining lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies.

At least 401 Minnesotans died of opioid overdoses last year, according to preliminary numbers from the state.

Although prescription opioids are still blamed for the highest number of overdose deaths, the state saw a huge surge in deaths last year caused by fentanyl.

Many public health experts have linked the availability of prescription painkillers to the abuse of other opioids.