Attorney General-elect Maura Healey says she would consider taking legal action against pharmaceutical companies to help rein in prescription drug abuse that can lead to heroin addiction.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Healey pointed to a lawsuit brought by Kentucky against Purdue Pharma alleging the company misled health care providers, consumers and government officials regarding the risk of addiction associated with the drug OxyContin.
"It's something I want to look at," Healey told the AP. "I certainly won't hesitate to take action against pharmaceutical companies that are engaged in unfair or deceptive marketing practices and aren't being straight with the public."
Healey said the problem of opiate addiction has been growing in part because prescription painkillers have been come so powerful while the cost of illegal drugs like heroin has plummeted as their potency has increased. That's led to a rise of overdoses, she said.
"I talked to people who got hurt on the job, had a sports injury, were prescribed these medicines, became addicted, the next thing we know their homes are in foreclosure or they've moved to heroin," she said.
The Kentucky lawsuit was filed in 2007 and remains pending.
Richard Silbert, a lawyer for Purdue Pharma, said the company agrees prescription drug abuse is a serious problem. He said that's why the company reformulated OxyContin to make it harder to abuse. But Silbert said the evidence doesn't show the company's marketing caused harm.
Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway has said the state is moving ahead with the lawsuit.
Kentucky isn't alone. In July, the city of Chicago filed a lawsuit alleging five pharmaceutical companies, including Purdue Pharma, deceptively marketed their drugs to treat long-term, non-cancer pain. Chicago's lawsuit mirrors a complaint filed in June by two California counties.
Supporters of the lawsuits hope other cities and counties could take similar actions, echoing the landmark legal action taken against tobacco companies in the 1990s.
In 2007, Purdue Pharma agreed to a nationwide settlement over the marketing of OxyContin. The company agreed to pay nearly $8 million to the Massachusetts Medicaid program under the settlement.
Healey said she's already spoken to Republican Gov.-elect Charlie Baker and looks forward to working with him to combat prescription drug abuse and heroin overdoses.
"I'm encouraged," said Healey, who supported fellow Democrat Martha Coakley for governor.
Baker said earlier this month that tackling heroin and opiate addiction will be an early priority.
"It cuts across geography. It cuts across class. It cuts across everything," Baker said.
Earlier this year, Gov. Deval Patrick pushed a first-in-the-nation ban of the powerful painkiller Zohydro, arguing the pill could add to what he described as an opioid abuse epidemic in the state.
A federal judge blocked the ban, noting the federal Food and Drug Administration had approved the drug.
Healey said the state needs to embrace other strategies, including cracking down on drug trafficking, expanding prescription drug monitoring programs, increasing the number of drug courts, creating lock-in programs to discourage individuals from filling multiple prescriptions at different pharmacies, and educating young people about the dangers of prescription and illegal drugs.
"I've talked to so many young people in recovery," she said. "They had no idea what they were getting into when they started taking pills."