Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Purdue Pharma, alleging the prescription drug manufacturer broke state law and profited through years of lies about the safety of painkillers like OxyContin.

The lawsuit is one part of an effort by the attorney general and other government officials to combat opioid addiction, which has led to nearly 5,000 deaths in Virginia since 2007 from prescription medicines and about 4,000 additional deaths from heroin and fentanyl, Herring said at a news conference.

“For decades, Purdue Pharma amassed a fortune and built an empire on suffering and lies — lies about the dangers of its drugs, lies about what the company knew, and lies about its central role in creating and profiting from an opioid crisis which has become the deadliest drug epidemic in American history,” Herring said. “We’re asking the court to put an end to Purdue’s illegal and destructive tactics.”

The lawsuit was filed in Tazewell County Circuit Court, an area of Southwest Virginia heavily hit by opioid addiction. The suit alleges Purdue has and is violating the Virginia Consumer Protection Act. Eventually the state will ask for specific financial damages, Herring said.

Bob Josephson, a Purdue spokesman, emailed a statement saying the company denies Herring’s allegations and will present a substantial defense.

“We share the Attorney General’s concern about the opioid crisis. We are disappointed, however, that in the midst of good faith negotiations with many states, the Attorney General has decided to pursue a costly and protracted litigation process. We will continue to work collaboratively with the states toward bringing meaningful solutions to help address this public health challenge.”

Herring accused the company of making billions while ignoring legal and moral obligations.

“I can’t emphasize this enough. Profit is at the heart of all of it,” he said. He specifically singled out sales of OxyContin going back to 1996.

“At every opportunity in the process, Purdue has sought to increase the number of opioids sold by increasing the number of doctors who prescribe, increasing how much they prescribe, increasing the number of people asking for and taking opioids, and increasing the amount they took.”

Specifically, he said, Purdue claimed its drugs were uniquely effective at alleviating pain with little risk of addiction or abuse. “Experience and science tell us that’s false, and our investigation shows that Purdue knew it was false,” he said.

The investigation was done by a group of state attorneys general and began last year. Other states have filed similar lawsuits against Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma; Massachusetts filed one earlier this month.

Herring was joined at the news conference by Honesty Liller, CEO of the McShin Foundation and a former opioid addict; Braxton Collier of Hanover County, who lost his son, Stephen Collier, to an opioid overdose in 2014; Herndon Police Chief Maggie DeBoard; and Dr. Nicholas Restrepo, vice president of medical affairs at Winchester Medical Center and a member of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition.

pwilson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6061

Twitter: @patrickmwilson

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