Publicis Health, a subsidiary of the French advertising conglomerate Publicis Groupe, has agreed to pay $350 million to settle claims that it helped fuel the opioid epidemic in the United States through its work for OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma.
This landmark settlement marks the first time an advertising company has been held financially accountable for its involvement in promoting opioid painkillers, which led to the devastating opioid overdose crisis over the past two decades.
Publicis Health was accused of working hand-in-hand with Purdue Pharma to develop misleading and predatory marketing campaigns that dramatically increased OxyContin prescriptions and sales, while downplaying the risk of addiction.
The aggressive promotion normalized overprescribing of opioids and directly contributed to the public health emergency that has claimed over 500,000 lives.
“Publicis devised and deployed unfair and deceptive marketing campaigns designed to push doctors to prescribe opioids to more patients, in higher doses, and for longer periods of time,” a lawsuit filed by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey stated.
“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.”
How Publicis Helped Fuel The Opioid Epidemic
- Worked with Purdue Pharma for over a decade to promote OxyContin through doctors and medical professionals
- Implemented controversial sales strategy “Evolve to Excellence” developed by McKinsey to target high-prescribing doctors
- Flooded doctors with messaging about OxyContin’s “abuse-deterrent” formula and encouraged higher doses
- Downplayed addiction risks and encouraged long-term use for chronic pain patients
- Ad campaigns led to dramatic increase in OxyContin prescriptions and overdose deaths
$350 Million Settlement A First For Advertising Industry
The $350 million settlement is the first time an advertising and public relations company has been held financially liable for its role in the opioid crisis. Legal experts say it could open the floodgates to additional lawsuits against other marketers and agencies.
So far, drug manufacturers and pharmacies have borne the brunt of opioid-related settlements, which have totaled more than $40 billion to date. Purdue Pharma alone has agreed to a $6 billion settlement plan after being accused of using aggressive and misleading marketing of OxyContin.
But this landmark agreement puts Publicis Health squarely in the crosshairs for knowingly designing and executing marketing campaigns that deceived doctors and patients about the addictive potential of OxyContin.
“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 Letitia James, New York Attorney General.
No More Opioid Work, Public Disclosure Required
As part of the settlement, Publicis Health will be banned from doing any future work related to marketing or selling opioids. The company will also be required to turn over internal documents detailing its opioid work to be posted publicly online.
This transparency could expose more damning details about Publicis’s involvement in the opioid epidemic. It may also drag other players like consulting firm McKinsey and Practice Fusion into renewed scrutiny for their own opioid work.
Settlement To Support Opioid Crisis Recovery Efforts
While no amount of money can undo the damage inflicted by the reckless overprescribing of opioids, the $350 million settlement will provide much-needed support for treatment, recovery and prevention programs across the country.
State and local governments on the front lines of the opioid epidemic will directly benefit from the funds to boost their efforts in hard-hit communities. It also puts real money behind holding corporations accountable for prioritizing profits over patients and public health.
The opioid crisis remains an urgent priority, with overdose deaths rising during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This settlement represents an important step in providing resources for people and communities to heal while sending a clear message to the healthcare industry: deceptive and dangerous marketing practices that put lives at risk will have consequences.