Effective but addictive: Bottles of the painkiller OxyContin, made by Purdue Pharma, sit on a counter at a pharmacy in Provo, Utah. Opioid overdose deaths have rocketed in recent years. Picture: REUTERS
Effective but addictive: Bottles of the painkiller OxyContin, made by Purdue Pharma, sit on a counter at a pharmacy in Provo, Utah. Opioid overdose deaths have rocketed in recent years. Picture: REUTERS

Boston — Purdue Pharma has agreed to settle a lawsuit by the state of Oklahoma accusing the OxyContin painkiller maker of helping fuel an opioid abuse epidemic, a person familiar with the matter said.

It is the first settlement to result from a wave of recent lawsuits over the drug maker's marketing of painkillers.

The settlement with Oklahoma attorney-general Mike Hunter came just weeks before Purdue, owned by members of the wealthy Sackler family, was set to face the first trial to result from around 2,000 lawsuits nationally against opioid manufacturers.

Hunter's 2017 lawsuit accuses Purdue, Johnson & Johnson & Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd of engaging in deceptive marketing that downplayed the risks of addiction associated with opioid pain drugs while overstating their benefits.

The companies deny wrongdoing. They had sought to delay the May 28 trial to September 16, citing the need to review records the state belatedly turned over that could be critical to their defence. The state had been seeking more than $20bn in damages.

But earlier in March, a trial judge rejected the companies' efforts to delay the trial, and on Monday, Oklahoma's supreme court rejected their appeal of that decision.

Purdue had been exploring filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to address potential liabilities stemming from the lawsuits, people familiar with the matter have said.

Hunter is scheduled to hold a media conference on Tuesday to announce a "breaking development" in the lawsuit. A spokesperson for Hunter declined to comment. A lawyer for Purdue did not respond to a request for comment.

Opioids, including prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl, were involved in a record 47,600 overdose deaths in 2017 in the US, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The epidemic has prompted lawsuits by state and local governments accusing various drug makers of contributing to the crisis. Those companies include Purdue, which introduced the painkiller OxyContin to the market in 1996.

More than 1,600 lawsuits have been consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio, who has pushed for a settlement ahead of the trial before him in October. Other cases, including Oklahoma's, are pending in state courts.

Purdue has held discussions to resolve the litigation with plaintiffs' lawyers, who have often compared the cases to widespread lawsuits against the tobacco industry that resulted in a $246bn settlement in 1998. 

Reuters