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For the first time, an ad agency has agreed to a settlement over its role in the opioid crisis.
Publicis Health, a branch of the advertising holding company Publicis Groupe, has agreed to pay $350 million to settle claims brought by attorneys general from around the country that it engaged in “predatory and deceptive marketing strategies” while working for Purdue Pharma to promote the prescription of opioids, including OxyContin, Butrans, and Hysingla, according to a statement released by New York Attorney General Letitia James’s office.
The AG’s office alleged that Publicis Health “was responsible for creating advertisements and materials…that promoted OxyContin as safe and unable to be abused” in campaigns that it developed with Purdue between 2010 and 2019.
At the center of the complaint is Purdue’s “Evolve to Excellence” campaign, developed by McKinsey & Company and implemented by Publicis, according to the AG’s statement, which alleges that it “targeted the doctors who prescribed the most OxyContin and flooded them with sales calls and marketing.”
McKinsey previously agreed to a $573 million settlement in 2021 over its work marketing opioids for pharmaceutical companies including Purdue.
As part of the settlement, Publicis Health has agreed to pay the $350 million within 60 days and will be prohibited from accepting future contracts or engagements that involve the sale or marketing of opioids.
When asked for comment, Publicis Health provided a press release that attributed some of the work to its since-closed ad agency Rosetta and said that “This settlement, in which the Attorneys General recognized Publicis Health’s ‘good faith and responsible corporate citizenship,’ is in no way an admission of wrongdoing or liability.”
More than $19 million of the settlement will go to New York State and will be used to fund opioid prevention, treatment, and abatement. Around 3.9% of adults in New York State self-reported misuse of pain medication in 2021, per a 2023 report from the New York State Department of Health. According to 2018 data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an estimated 9.9 million people over the age of 12 had misused prescription pain relievers within the past year.
“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 in a statement.
In a post on X, James added that her office plans to “continue to go after those who contributed to this devastation.”