Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey has filed a lawsuit against Publicis Health over its work for Purdue Pharma during the opioid epidemic.

The complaint filed Thursday alleges that Publicis Health worked with Purdue between 2010 and 2019 – the years encompassing the height of the opioid crisis – on a variety of marketing campaigns aiming to make doctors prescribe more opioids to patients, and at higher doses. 

“This decade-long marketing scheme had clear goals: to sell more OxyContin, make a profit and manage Purdue’s reputation as the opioid epidemic was raging,” Healey said during a press conference.

Healey argues that Publicis Health created marketing strategies that aimed to reduce hesitancy among prescribers to give patients OxyContin. The agency planned campaigns to “humanize” the OxyContin brand to doctors, with the goal of getting more patients on higher doses, she alleges.

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.”

Several Publicis Health brands are identified in the complaint: “From 2010 until 2019, Publicis – together with its agencies Rosetta, Razorfish Health, Publicis Health Media and Verilogue – provided marketing schemes and analysis to Purdue that contributed to unprecedented levels of opioid use disorder, overdose and death. As described above, the legal and registered assumed names of the Publicis entities performing the work changed over time, as Publicis Groupe acquired companies and caused them to merge and reorganize. But Publicis and its agencies engaged in a persistent course of unfair and deceptive marketing schemes that caused Massachusetts residents to suffer, overdose, and die,” the complaint reads.

It also alleges that, in 2016, Publicis Health planned to combat negative perception about OxyContin and addiction. At that time, as the dangers of the drugs were becoming clearer, Publicis Health and Purdue allegedly continued to create marketing plans to fight the negative press and keep healthcare providers prescribing.

The complaint notes that, over the course of the decade, Publicis Health generated “more than $50 million” for its marketing work on Purdue’s behalf.

Publicis Health is expected to argue that there was no false advertising on the company’s part, and has described the complaint as a mischaracterization about the work that was performed. The agency said the work was aimed at healthcare providers and physicians, who “knew the risks and benefits” of the drugs, rather than consumers. Publicis Health also said it doesn’t bear responsibility for the conduct of the medical professionals.

Purdue Pharma, which was owned by the Sackler family, settled hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of claims with the U.S. Department of Justice over its role in the opioid epidemic. Last year, the company pleaded guilty to not preventing prescription drugs from entering the black market, as well as paying doctors to incentivize them to prescribe more opioids. The company filed for bankruptcy.

Healey’s court filing states that Purdue targeted about 5,000 prescribers in 2010 to boost opioids. That number went up to 400,000 in 2013.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 247,000 people died from prescription opioid overdoses from 1999 to 2019. During the COVID-19 pandemic, overdose deaths rose significantly, driven largely by synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

Earlier this year, Healey secured a $573 million settlement with consulting firm McKinsey & Company for its role in assisting opioid companies promote the drugs.