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Maryland counties, cities sue McKinsey over opioid marketing

Several Maryland counties and cities have filed a new lawsuit against McKinsey & Company, alleging that the consulting firm conspired with Purdue Pharma to fraudulently market opioid painkillers.

The complaint includes Allegany, Washington, St. Mary’s and Cecil counties and the cities of Cumberland, Frostburg and Hagerstown as plaintiffs.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Maryland, joins an immense legal movement that seeks to hold opioid makers, sellers and marketers responsible for the opioid epidemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans.

“We now believe we can show that McKinsey was also involved in damaging our clients,” said Bruce Poole, a Maryland lawyer who is acting as local counsel in the new lawsuit. “We are seeking both injunctive relief and monetary damages.”

The complaint brings civil RICO claims against McKinsey, which worked with Purdue Pharma to market its keystone product, OxyContin, after the pharmaceutical company pleaded guilty in 2007 to misbranding the painkiller as a less addictive medication option.

As part of the guilty plea, Purdue entered into a “Corporate Integrity Agreement” that aimed to regulate the company’s drug sales more carefully, according to the complaint. Not long after, the company hired McKinsey to help boost its sales of OxyContin.

The complaint claims that Purdue pushed OxyContin at the request of the company’s owners, members of the wealthy Sackler family, so that they could take money out of the business and ultimately distance themselves from the sale of opioids.

The lawsuit also accuses McKinsey of pushing sales tactics that would contribute to a growing crisis of opioid addiction, including targeting doctors who were already prescribing the most opioids and encouraging them to prescribe higher doses for longer periods of time.

The firm also developed a plan called “Project Turbocharge,” later renamed Evolve to Excellence, that aimed to further increase opioid sales after Purdue’s corporate integrity agreement ended, according to the complaint.

The strategy led to massive sales for Purdue, but also to overprescribing of drugs that could be highly addictive. People who became addicted to prescription painkillers like OxyContin sometimes turned to illicit street drugs, such as heroin and fentanyl, to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

“McKinsey’s method of aggressive marketing of opioids to prescribers has demonstrably exacerbated the opioid crisis,” the lawsuit alleges.

A spokesperson for McKinsey said the firm will defend itself in cases related to its past work for opioid manufacturers.

“McKinsey believes that work was lawful and has denied allegations to the contrary. The recent settlements with state attorneys general provided us an opportunity to be part of the solution to the opioid epidemic and contained no admission or wrongdoing or liability,” the spokesperson said.

States and local governments began suing opioid makers and sellers during the last decade in an effort to recoup some of the tremendous costs of the opioid epidemic, from a spike in overdoses to a need for expanded addiction treatment options.

Maryland, like the rest of the nation, has seen a major leap in overdoses since the beginning of the opioid crisis. In 2011, the state reported 529 unintentional opioid-related deaths. By 2020, that number had risen to almost 2,500 deaths.

Maryland was part of a settlement with McKinsey that the Attorney General’s Office announced in February. The New York Times reported that the settlement agreement did not bar additional lawsuits from local governments in some states.

Forty-seven states, the District of Columbia and several U.S. territories signed on to the settlement, in which McKinsey agreed to pay nearly $600 million. The settlement included more than $12 million that could be used for opioid abatement in Maryland, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

Purdue Pharma was dissolved in September as part of a bankruptcy settlement that required the Sackler family to pay billions to confront the opioid epidemic, but also limited their liability.


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