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Healey sues Publicis Health for allegedly ‘deceptive’ advertising tactics that fueled state’s opioid crisis

Bottles of Purdue Pharma L.P. OxyContin medication.
Bottles of Purdue Pharma L.P. OxyContin medication.George Frey/Bloomberg

Attorney General Maura Healey is suing the marketing firm Publicis Health for fueling Massachusetts’ opioid crisis through allegedly “unfair and deceptive” tactics to sell more OxyContin, her office announced.

A suit filed in Suffolk Superior Court on Thursday alleges that Publicis used these strategies under several trade names, including Rosetta and Razorfish Health, to persuade doctors to prescribe higher doses of opioids to more patients for longer stretches of time.

These actions include putting illegal ads for OxyContin in patients’ electronic medical records and creating training materials that encourage Purdue Pharma sales representatives to combat doctors’ hesitancy around the drug, according to the suit.

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Publicis also worked with Purdue to create patient stories that aimed to “humanize” the OxyContin brand during sales representative visits with doctors.

“Publicis developed one patient vignette, ‘James,’ age 40, to target a younger demographic,” Healey’s office said in a statement. “Publicis designed the ‘James’ patient example to have his dose increased from 10 mg to 15 mg to 20 mg, in a period of just three weeks.”

Healey argues the advertising firm wrote and sent thousands of e-mails to prescribers encouraging them to increase patients’ use and dosage of OxyContin, and tried to convince them to prescribe this drug to patients who were on less dangerous opioids.

The firm also “told Purdue how to target the most dangerous high prescribers,” according to the statement.

“Publicis convinced doctors to prescribe more OxyContin to more patients as the opioid epidemic was raging,” Healey said in the statement. “As a result, patients in Massachusetts suffered, overdosed, and died, while Publicis collected tens of millions of dollars.”

The company earned more than $50 million from dozens of these contracts with Purdue between 2010 and 2019, according to the lawsuit.

Publicis is owned by the French public relations and marketing conglomerate Publicis Groupe, which earned $7.2 billion in revenue in North America last year alone, according to the suit. The parent company also controls health care agencies in Massachusetts and other states across the country.

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A spokesperson for Publicis Health said in statement e-mailed to the Globe on Saturday evening that the lawsuit is “completely without basis,” and that the company is not a drug manufacturer, distributor, or consultant.

“The Massachusetts Attorney General’s complaint cherry picks unrelated statements made over the course of a multiyear engagement,” the statement said. “It takes them out of context to create a completely false and misleading narrative. The complaint does not identify a single statement made by Publicis Health as false but instead relies on broad unfounded conclusions and a flawed public nuisance theory.”

The lawsuit comes after Healey sued Purdue and the Sackler family in 2018 and co-led a $573 million settlement against McKinsey & Company in February for their roles in the opioid crisis.

“Responsibility for the opioid crisis runs across the industry, from Purdue and the Sacklers, to consultants and partners like McKinsey and Publicis,” Healey said.

Caroline Enos can be reached at caroline.enos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineEnos.