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Ad firm that marketed OxyContin agrees to $350M settlement

An advertising agency that helped develop a marketing strategy to sell opioids like OxyContin agreed to a $350 million national settlement, attorneys general announced Thursday.

The settlement will be paid by Publicis Health, part of the French media conglomerate Publicis Groupe and one of the world’s largest health care advertising companies. It marks the first time an advertising company has reached a major settlement over the U.S. opioid epidemic.

The settlement money will be divided among every state and will mostly be used to fund opioid abatement, treatment and prevention efforts. Publicis agreed to pay the entire settlement in the next two months, including $7 million that will be used for states’ legal fees.

The agreement prohibits Publicis from accepting any future contracts related to the marketing or sale of opioids and requires it to make public hundreds of thousands of internal documents detailing its work in opioid promotion.

According to a court filing, OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma was Publicis’s top opioid client from 2010 until 2019, and Publicis was Purdue’s No. 1 marketing partner. Publicis worked with Purdue to promote branded opioids OxyContin, Butrans and Hysingla.

The office of New York Attorney General Letitia James (D), who co-led negotiations with Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser (D), said Publicis was responsible for creating advertisements and materials, such as pamphlets and brochures, that promoted OxyContin as safe and unable to be abused.

According to James, Publicis implemented Purdue Pharma’s “Evolve to Excellence” scheme, which targeted the doctors who prescribed the most OxyContin and flooded them with sales calls and marketing touting the “abuse-deterrent” aspects of OxyContin and promoted the benefits of increasing patients’ dosages.

That campaign was developed for Purdue by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. McKinsey has already agreed to pay nearly $1 billion in a series of settlements for its role in the opioid crisis.

“No amount of money can compensate for lives lost and addiction suffered, but with this agreement, Publicis will cease their illegal behavior and pay $350 million to help our communities rebuild,” James said.

Weiser said Publicis developed sales tactics that relied on farming data from recordings of personal in-office conversations between patients and providers. The company was also instrumental in Purdue’s decision to market OxyContin to providers on patients’ electronic health records, Weiser said.

Publicis said in a statement the settlement “is in no way an admission of wrongdoing or liability” and that its work “was at all times fully compliant with the law.”

Publicis said the work was undertaken primarily by Rosetta, a small agency that it acquired but shuttered 10 years ago.

“We recognize the broader context in which that lawful work took place. The fight against the opioid crisis in the United States requires collaboration across industries, lawmakers, and communities, and we are committed to playing our part,” Publicis said.

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