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North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem announces the filing of a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma and their role in the opiod crisis on Tuesday, May 15, 2018, during a press conference at First Step Recovery in south Fargo. David Samson / Forum News Service

Attorney General Stenehjem files suit against leading opioid manufacturer

FARGO — North Dakota has joined a coalition of states in filing lawsuits against a drug manufacturer for its role in the ongoing opioid epidemic in the United States.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem announced at a press conference Tuesday, May 15, that he had filed a lawsuit on behalf of the state in U.S. District Court against Purdue Pharma, the nation's leading manufacturer of prescription opioids such as OxyContin.

North Dakota joined Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, Nevada and Texas in filing lawsuits Tuesday.

Over a year ago, Stenehjem's office joined the coalition of states in its investigation of companies feared to be complicit in creating the opioid crisis. The investigation obtained hundreds of thousands of documents from manufacturers and distributors of various opioid prescription medications. Based on their findings, Stenehjem concluded that Purdue Pharma is largely responsible for fueling the opioid epidemic.

Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin in 1996, claiming that opioids were a safe and effective medical solution to long term chronic pain, Stenehjem said.

The opioid manufacturer encouraged escalating doses of opioids and said OxyContin had no upper limit in the amount that could be prescribed, he added.

Stenehjem believes that credible evidence exists to conclude that Purdue Pharma knew the serious risks of long term opioid use and ignored evidence that its product was and could be deadly.

The state alleges that Purdue disguised its role in the deceptive marketing of opioids by working through third party front groups (such as pain advocacy groups it created and funded) and Key Opinion Leaders (selected doctors it paid to tout the safety of those pain medications).

As a result of Purdue's aggressive marketing efforts, the number of annual opioid prescriptions in the U.S. increased from 76 million in 1991 to 207 million in 2013. In 2012, Purdue's OxyContin represented about 30 percent of the overall painkiller market.

"It's critical to hold these companies liable because we know that 75-85 percent of the people that turn to heroin started out with prescription painkillers," he said.

According to reports from the Centers for Disease Control, at least 251 people in North Dakota have died from opioid overdoses.

"I think it's time that we hold the company that created this problem accountable," Stenehjem said.

Tuesday's press conference was held at First Step Recovery, an organization co-founded by Stenehjem's late sister Susan Stenehjem Brown.