French Ad Firm Agrees to $350 Million Settlement Over Role in Fueling Opioid Crisis

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Nearly 645,000 people died from opioid overdoses in the United States between 1999 and 2021.

Publicis Health, a unit of French media conglomerate Publicis Groupe S.A, and one of the largest healthcare advertising companies in the world, will pay $350 million to settle allegations that it played a major role in the opioid crisis across the United States, including in New York, Attorney General Letitia James announced on Feb. 1.

The multi-million dollar settlement is the first of its kind involving an advertising agency.

It brings to a close nearly three years of discussions after prosecutors first accused Publicis Health of having developed “predatory and deceptive marketing strategies” for Purdue Pharma that increased prescriptions and sales of opioids such as OxyContin.

Publicis Health worked with Purdue Pharma from 2010 to 2019 on marketing campaigns for a number of opioids, including OxyContin, Butrans, and Hysingla.

The advertiser implemented Purdue Pharma’s predatory “Evolve to Excellence” scheme, developed by management consulting firm McKinsey & Co. which prosecutors said “targeted the doctors who prescribed the most OxyContin and flooded them with sales calls and marketing” touting the so-called benefits of increasing patients’ dosages, often unnecessarily.

Prosecutors claimed the advertising agency’s actions and resulting increased sales of opioids ultimately helped fuel the devastating epidemic.

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In a press release announcing the settlement, the attorney general’s office said she had led a coalition of every attorney general in the nation in securing the multi-million dollar payout from the firm.

New York will receive approximately $19,176,750.60 as a result of the agreement, which Ms. James’s office said will be used to fund opioid abatement, treatment, and prevention.

“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 Ms. James. “No amount of money can compensate for lives lost and addiction suffered, but with this agreement, Publicis will cease their illegal behavior and pay $350 million to help our communities rebuild.”

Ms. James also touted New York’s work to combat the use of opioids, including officials delivering more than $2.7 billion to fund opioid abatement, treatment, and prevention.

The attorney general vowed to continue supporting communities that she said have been “ravaged by this epidemic” and provide them with critical resources.

Ms. James and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser led negotiations regarding the settlement. Joining them on the executive committee were the attorneys general of California, Connecticut, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont.

Those states will receive lump sums from the settlement ranging from $1 million to $35 million.

Pay Within 60 days

Publicis must pay the amount within 60 days, and the advertising agency is also prohibited from “accepting any future contracts or engagements” involving the marketing or sale of opioids, according to the terms of the settlement.

The company must also release “hundreds of thousands” of internal documents detailing its work with opioid manufacturers as well as its communications with consultants like McKinsey & Co. and Practice Fusion, to be included in an online document repository, which will be publicly disclosed.

McKinsey & Co. has separately agreed to pay $641 million to multiple states to resolve claims relating to the opioid crisis.

Publicis did not admit any wrongdoing or liability as part of the settlement and said it would defend itself against any litigation that the settlement does not resolve.

Bottles of prescription painkiller OxyContin pills, made by Purdue Pharma LP sit on a counter at a local pharmacy in Provo, Utah, on April 25, 2017. (George Frey/Reuters)
Bottles of prescription painkiller OxyContin pills, made by Purdue Pharma LP sit on a counter at a local pharmacy in Provo, Utah, on April 25, 2017. (George Frey/Reuters)
In a separate statement announcing what it called a “comprehensive resolution” on Thursday, Publicis Health said the past work undertaken for opioid manufacturers was primarily done by an advertising agency it used to own called Rosetta. That agency was shut down a decade ago.

“The work for pharmaceutical companies addressed by this settlement was at all times fully compliant with the law. It was undertaken primarily by Rosetta, a small agency shuttered ten years ago, that was already working with pharmaceutical clients that manufactured opioid medication when it was acquired thirteen years ago in 2011,” the firm said.

“Its work related to these products was used solely with healthcare providers, not consumers, using communication tools and language expressly approved by the FDA,” Publicis Health continued.

“We recognize the broader context in which that lawful work took place. 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 healthcare advertising firm concluded.

Elsewhere on Thursday, British pharmaceutical company Hikma Pharmaceuticals said it had reached an agreement in principle with U.S. prosecutors to help resolve claims that they helped fuel the deadly U.S. opioid epidemic. The London-based firm said the agreement amounts to $150 million, consisting of $115 million in cash and $35 million worth of opioid addiction treatment medication.

The latest settlements add to the more than $50 billion that drug manufacturers, distributors, pharmacy operators, and consultants have agreed to pay to resolve claims regarding the opioid crisis.

Nearly 645,000 people died from opioid overdoses in the United States between 1999 and 2021, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Reuters contributed to this report.

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