A director of GlaxoSmithKline, the British pharmaceuticals company, has been sued by the state of Massachusetts for her alleged role in fuelling the US opioid addiction epidemic.

Judy Lewent, who served on the board of opioid drugmaker Purdue Pharma for more than four years until 2014, was named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by the state’s attorney-general last month.

The legal action comes as US authorities step up their campaign against those they hold responsible for a crisis that resulted in 42,200 opioid overdose deaths in 2016. 

The litigation, described as a “ tidal wave” by experts, is designed to raise funds to cover the costs of the epidemic, including addiction treatment centres and expanded morgue capacity

The epidemic — which has been declared a “public health emergency” by Donald Trump — has attracted international attention, but GSK appears to have recently scrubbed all mention of Ms Lewent’s time on the Purdue board from its annual report and company website. 

In the company’s 2016 annual report, Ms Lewent’s biography said she was “previously a non-executive director” of Purdue and an associated company until December 2014. But the 2017 report, released in March this year, omitted that reference. 

Screenshots from GSK's annual report in 2016, left, and 2017: the reference (highlighted) to Ms Lewent's connection to Purdue Pharma and associated groups was removed

A similar change was made to the company’s website some time after November 2017, according to a preserved copy from The Internet Archive, a not-for profit group that maintains a library of historical webpages.

A spokesperson for GSK said: “It is not appropriate for GSK to comment on legal matters faced by another company. Board biographies are updated and approved by directors during the routine annual report process. 

“Reference to Ms Lewent’s role as non-executive director of the private company Purdue Pharma, which ended on 31 December 2014, was disclosed in previous annual reports.”

Following the FT’s enquiries, the company said it would update its website so that Ms Lewent’s biography mentioned her tenure as a director of Purdue.

Ms Lewent declined to comment via a GSK spokesperson and did not respond to direct enquiries.

More than 30 US states, cities, counties and other local authorities have filed lawsuits against Purdue, a privately-held company that was among the biggest producers of opioid painkillers, as well as other drugmakers, wholesalers and pharmacy groups. 

Although most fatalities are caused by heroin spiked with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, the majority of victims first became hooked on prescription painkillers like Purdue’s OxyContin before progressing to the illegal street drug. 

However, the lawsuit filed in Massachusetts last month represented a new front in the legal fight because it targeted individual executives and directors of Purdue such as Ms Lewent and members of the wealthy Sackler family, which owns the company.

Ms Lewent, who is chair of GSK’s audit and risk committee, was paid $476,000 in fees by the British pharmaceutical company last year and $496,000 in 2016. A former chief financial officer at Merck & Co, the US drugmaker, she also serves as a director of Thermo Fisher Scientific and Motorola Solutions. 

FILE - This Feb. 19, 2013, file photo, shows OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. Overdoses don't happen just to heroin addicts _ patients who legally use strong painkillers called opioids are at risk in the nation’s epidemic, too. A new study says when patients were prescribed an overdose antidote along with those medications, they made fewer painkiller-related visits to the emergency room. The study released on June 27, 2016, went a step further _ to see if the take-home antidote idea also could work for patients with chronic pain who may not realize they could accidentally get into trouble with prescription painkillers such as Oxycontin, Vicodin and others. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot, File)
OxyContin, made by Purdue Pharma, has been criticised for serving as a gateway to opioid addiction © AP

The legal complaint filed by Massachusetts alleges that Ms Lewent and the other defendants deceived patients and doctors on the risks of prescription opioids.

It alleges that Purdue marketed the painkillers to vulnerable people, including the elderly, and encouraged physicians to prescribe them for long periods of time.

Ms Lewent, who joined the Purdue board in 2009, and other directors were paid “hundreds of thousand of dollars” by the company, according to the lawsuit. 

The lawsuit says the directors were kept apprised of “signs that patients were being harmed” via regular reports, which “came in by the hundreds and even thousands”. 

Such reports were allegedly sent to Ms Lewent on eight occasions between April 2010 and July 2013. 

A spokesperson for Purdue said it shared the attorney-general’s “concern about the opioid crisis”, but added: “We are disappointed, however, that in the midst of good-faith negotiations with many states, [Massachusetts] has decided to pursue a costly and protracted litigation process.”

The spokesperson said the company “vigorously” denied the allegations and that it would continue to “work collaboratively with the states towards bringing meaningful solutions to address this public health challenge”. 

Purdue has not yet filed a response to the Massachusetts suit, but has filed motions to dismiss legal actions bought by other local authorities. One of its main lines of defence is that its medicines were approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of chronic pain, which gave it the right to market them to doctors. 

“We believe it is inappropriate for [Massachusetts] to substitute its judgment for the judgment of the regulatory, scientific and medical experts at FDA,” said Purdue.

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