Then-Rep. Aaron M. Frey, D-Bangor, listens to a colleague in the House in Augusta in this BDN file photo. Frey, now Maine's attorney general, announced a lawsuit against drug maker Purdue Pharma Monday.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine became one of the last states to sue pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma over its alleged role in the opioid crisis on Monday, saying it “engaged in numerous deceptive or unfair acts” to drive prescriptions to the highest rate in the nation.

The lawsuit from Attorney General Aaron Frey comes after a year-long investigation into marketing practices used by the Connecticut company after it signed a 2007 settlement with Maine and 25 other states agreeing not to engage in “false, misleading or deceptive” practices while marketing OxyContin, a painkiller that carries a high risk of addiction.

Maine joined California, Hawaii and the District of Columbia on Monday to file suits in state court against Purdue, which said in a statement that it “vigorously denies the allegations contained in litigation against the company” and will defend itself against “misleading attacks.”

It makes Maine one of the last U.S. states to take recent legal action against Purdue in state court. Last month, West Virginia, Maryland, Kansas, Iowa and Wisconsin joined a group of at least 40 other states. About 2,000 cities, counties and tribes — including Portland, Lewiston and Bangor — have also sued Purdue as part of a lawsuit consolidated at a federal court in Cleveland.

Named as defendants in the Maine suit — filed in Kennebec County Superior Court on Monday — are Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family, its owners. It alleges violations of Maine consumer protection law and says the company increased its sales force and made deceptive claims about opioid products in Maine to pressure health care providers here to prescribe more drugs.

“Purdue and the Sackler defendants misled Maine consumers, and in doing so played a significant role in accelerating the opioid epidemic,” Frey, a Democrat, said in a Monday statement.

Opioid overdoses killed just over 2,200 people in Maine between 2007 and 2018 and prescription opioids were responsible for 60 percent of those deaths, according to state health officials. At the same time, opioid prescriptions in Maine reached the highest rate in the country in 2012 — 21.8 prescriptions for every 100 people.

Many findings from the state’s investigation of Purdue are redacted in the lawsuit, which alleges Purdue had a large role in the crisis by sending staff to visit health care providers during the early part of the decade. It distributed literature claiming risk of addiction was low — and made $65,000 in payments or food purchases to providers between 2013 and 2016, the lawsuit says.

Maine had 54 pharmacy robberies in 2012, which led to a state and federal crackdown. The landscape has been dominated since then by deaths from non-prescription opioids including heroin and fentanyl that reached a record peak of 376 fatal overdoses in 2016.

A judge in North Dakota threw out a similar state lawsuit in May, according to the Bismarck Tribune. The Maine suit asks for fines against Purdue. The state of Oklahoma agreed in March to a $270 million settlement that will establish a new addiction treatment center and pay for addiction treatment drugs, aid to cities and towns and legal fees.

In a statement, Purdue pointed to the North Dakota result and said the company “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,” Purdue said.

BDN writer Seth Koenig contributed to this report.

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Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...