Publicis worked with doctors to record intimate patient conversations for marketing purposes
SEATTLE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced today public relations firm Publicis Health will pay Washington state more than $7.9 million for its role in fueling the opioid epidemic. The Washington Attorney General’s Office has recovered more than $1.2 billion and counting that must be used to combat the fentanyl and opioid crisis in Washington as a result of legal actions against entities that helped fuel the epidemic.
Publicis Health was the main marketing firm for Purdue Pharma for more than a decade. Publicis Health helped Purdue’s sales force target prescribers who would be most likely to prescribe large amounts of opioids, and had some prescribers record conversations with their patients to help the company better market the highly addictive narcotics.
As part of a legally binding resolution filed in King County Superior Court, Publicis Health will pay Washington state $7.9 million to resolve the lawsuit over its deceptive marketing for Purdue. This money will go directly to the state Legislature to provide funding for programs and services to address the fentanyl and opioid epidemic. The $7.9 million will come to the state in the next several months, and can be appropriated during the 2024 legislative session. As part of a $350 million multistate resolution, Publicis Health will no longer market or advertise opioid products.
Today’s announcement is in addition to the $149.5 million resolution with Johnson & Johnson that Ferguson announced last week.
“Publicis’ aggressive marketing strategies helped fuel one of the greatest public health crises of our generation,” Ferguson said. “We set out to ensure that companies like Publicis would pay for the damage they caused. Now they are.”
Publicis’ role marketing highly addictive opioids
Publicis Groupe is a French-based marketing company with offices across the globe. Prior to working with Purdue, it created a American-based company, Publicis Health. From 2010 through 2021, Publicis Health became Purdue’s top marketing partner and made $70 million over that time to promote Purdue’s opioid products, like OxyContin.
Ferguson asserts Publicis Health created materials to help Purdue convince health care professionals to prescribe opioids with higher doses and longer durations, which increased the likelihood of addiction. Publicis Health created many of the marketing materials that Purdue’s sales representatives used when they met with prescribers. Its advertising kits and savings cards were designed to lure prescribers and patients into extending the length of opioid prescriptions.
It provided physicians with digital recorders so that Publicis and Purdue officials could later listen to the conversations between prescribers and patients about opioids. The two companies used these recordings to determine how to best overcome patients’ concerns about taking opioids.
Publicis Health assisted Purdue to send paid advisors and key opinion leaders to deceptively explain that prescription opioids were safe and less addictive. These individuals conveyed the messages to health care providers, patients and policymakers without disclosing that they were being paid or influenced by either company.
Publicis Health worked with multinational consulting firm McKinsey to strategize, develop and implement a marketing scheme for Purdue. In 2021, following Ferguson’s investigation into how it aided Purdue to increase opioid sales, McKinsey paid Washington state $13.4 million. Those funds also went toward opioid abatement programs.
Ferguson asserts Publicis’ conduct violated the state Consumer Protection Act and public nuisance statutes.
Examples of programs and support
The Legislature will determine how the state share is allocated in communities around the state.
All spending decisions must be consistent with the state Opioid Response Plan.
Approved strategies include:
- Improving and expanding treatment for opioid use disorder.
- Supporting individuals in treatment and recovery, including providing comprehensive wrap-around services to individuals with opioid use disorder, including housing, transportation, education, job placement, job training or childcare.
- Addressing the needs of pregnant women and their families, including those with babies with neonatal disorder.
- Preventing opioid misuse, overprescribing and overdoses through, among other strategies, school-based and youth-focused programs, public education campaigns, increased availability and distribution of naloxone and other drugs that treat overdoses, additional training and enhancements to the prescription drug monitoring program.
- Supporting first responders.
Ongoing enforcement actions
The Attorney General’s Office is preparing for trial against multiple national pharmacy chains that also helped fuel the epidemic.
Successful previous outcomes include:
- $518 million from distributors McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen.
- $183 million from manufacturer Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family bankruptcy.
- $149.5 million from Johnson & Johnson.
- $120.3 million from Walgreens.
- $110.7 million from CVS.
- $90.8 million from Teva Pharmaceuticals.
- $62.6 million from Walmart.
- $50 million from Allergan.
- $13.5 million from McKinsey, a consulting firm that advised Purdue Pharma.
- $7.9 million from Publicis Health.
- $7.7 million from the Mallinckrodt bankruptcy.
Ferguson has rejected national settlements with five corporations, netting Washington more than $180 million for resources that will improve treatment options, fund for first responders and provide other proven strategies to address the epidemic.
In 2022, Ferguson reached a resolution, pending bankruptcy court approval, requiring Purdue Pharma to pay $183 million to Washington — $113 million more than the national deal. Also in 2022, Ferguson’s case against the three largest opioid distributors — McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp. — led to a $518 million resolution. That was $46 million more than the national settlement promised. Ferguson's recent settlement with Johnson & Johnson was $24 million more than the national settlement offer he rejected.
Washington’s Attorney General serves the people and the state of Washington. As the state’s largest law firm, the Attorney General’s Office provides legal representation to every state agency, board, and commission in Washington. Additionally, the Office serves the people directly by enforcing consumer protection, civil rights, and environmental protection laws. The Office also prosecutes elder abuse, Medicaid fraud, and handles sexually violent predator cases in 38 of Washington’s 39 counties. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; Brionna.firstname.lastname@example.org
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