Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey filed a lawsuit Monday against Purdue Pharma and members of the drug manufacturer’s Sackler family, arguing that they “committed unfair and deceptive business practices” while marketing opioids in Maine.

Frey’s action adds Maine to a lengthening list of states and municipalities that are turning to the courts in an effort to hold the company accountable for the devastating social and economic impacts of opioid use disorder.

The complaint in Kennebec County Superior Court details Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma’s “successful efforts to deceptively market opioid drugs in Maine from 2007 through 2017, as Maine’s opioid crisis reached epidemic levels,” a news release from the attorney general said. The marketing practices violated Maine law, the complaint states.

Maine’s drug overdose deaths reached an all-time high in 2017 at 417 deaths, before declining to 354 deaths in 2018.

“Purdue and the Sackler defendants misled Maine consumers, and in doing so played a significant role in accelerating the opioid epidemic,” Frey said in a statement. “Our complaint alleges that their unrelenting sales visits to doctors and deceptive practices led to a marked increase in opioid prescriptions, and a corresponding increase in the number of Mainers suffering from opioid use disorder. Maine deserves accountability and redress from Purdue and the Sacklers.”

A spokesman for Purdue Pharma denied the accusations and called the Maine lawsuit “misleading” and “sensationalized.”

According to Frey’s news release, “the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that an average of 10,400 Maine residents each year struggled with opioid abuse disorder (including heroin use and pain relievers) between 2007 and 2016. Of the 2,206 opioid overdose deaths in Maine between 2007 and 2018 (numbers which include deaths involving heroin and nonprescription fentanyl), 1,321 were caused by prescription opioids. Of those deaths, 482 were caused by oxycodone.”

Marc Malon, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, said Maine, California, Hawaii and the District of Columbia filed lawsuits on the same day as part of a coordinated strategy, although the specifics of the lawsuits are somewhat different because laws in each state are different. Portland, Bangor and other Maine municipalities have filed lawsuits against Purdue Pharma and other drug manufacturers over the opioid crisis.

Forty states and more than 2,000 local governments have previously filed lawsuits against Purdue Pharma. The legal strategy is similar to when states sued tobacco companies, resulting in a 1998 settlement that paid billions to states for tobacco companies falsely claiming that tobacco was a safe product.

Malon said that the amount of damages the Maine Attorney General’s Office is seeking hasn’t yet been publicly disclosed but will be during court hearings.

Robert Josephson, a spokesman for Purdue Pharma, pointed to how a judge in a state court in North Dakota on May 10 dismissed a lawsuit brought by the North Dakota attorney general in that state.

In the 27-page decision, North Dakota District Judge James Hill ruled that Purdue “cannot control how doctors prescribe its products and certainly cannot control how individual patients use and respond to its products.”

Josephson said that “Purdue Pharma vigorously denies the allegations contained in litigation against the company and will continue to defend itself against these misleading attacks. These sensationalized claims are part of a continuing effort to try these cases in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system, as plaintiffs are unable to connect the conduct alleged to the harm described. Instead, they have invented stunningly overbroad legal theories, which if adopted by courts, will undermine the bedrock legal principle of causation.”

But Frey argued in court filings that Purdue Pharma has made “unsubstantiated claims about how opioids lead to addiction and the extent to which addiction risk can be managed” and has been “misrepresenting and making unsubstantiated claims that increased doses of opioids did not pose significant additional risks of addiction.”

In 2016, Maine lawmakers approved a strict new prescribing law that, in some cases, limits dosages and length of prescriptions for chronic pain.

Maine Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, praised Frey for filing suit.

“It’s clear that several pharmaceutical companies, including Purdue Pharma, aggressively pushed opioids onto patients, physicians and the general public,” Jackson said. “They need to be held accountable for their role in this epidemic and the lengths they stooped to while trying to make obscene profits.”

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