Makers of OxyContin, Percocet sued by U.S. governments over opioid crisis

Posted on July 16, 2017 in Health Debates – News/World – Besieged by the worst epidemic in American history, states including Ohio and Missouri are attempting to turn Big Pharma into the new Big Tobacco.
July 15, 2017.   By

WASHINGTON—So many babies are being born dependent on opioids that the local hospital opened a special unit for them. So many people with addictions are getting arrested that the local jail has had to turn away would-be inmates.

And Barry Staubus keeps getting those miserable emails.

Whenever an autopsy is done in Sullivan County, in northeast Tennessee, the report is sent to the district attorney. So Staubus has been inundated with forensic accounts of tragedies he can’t prosecute anyone for: drug overdoses, suicides by people on drugs, death by diseases caused by drug use.

Staubus has spent years going after drug dealers. Fed up with the “culture of drug dependence, dysfunction and death” infecting the Appalachian community where he grew up, he is now aiming higher.

In June, Staubus and two colleagues from nearby counties announced that they were suing drug manufacturers — specifically, the corporations behind legal painkillers OxyContin, Percocet, Opana and a generic oxycodone.

Their suit is part of a wave of litigation against pharmaceutical companies by states, counties and local prosecutors besieged by the worst addiction crisis in American history.

The goal: turn Big Pharma into the new Big Tobacco.

Accused of deceiving the public about the addiction risk of cigarettes, tobacco giants agreed in 1998 to pay more than $200 billion toward the government costs of providing health-care to smokers.

Pharmaceutical companies have now been sued by the attorneys general of Ohio, Missouri, Mississippi and Oklahoma, plus counties in such states as California and New York.

More lawsuits are probably coming.

Opioid overdoses killed 33,000 people in the U.S. in 2015, about three times the number of gun homicides. The intensity of the crisis, and likely the fact that many of the victims are white middle-class suburbanites with political clout, has produced a bipartisan shift in perceptions of addiction.

Even political figures in conservative areas — like Sullivan County, where Donald Trump got 76 per cent of the vote — have moved away from castigating addicts and moved toward searching for systemic causes and solutions.

Staubus’s suit argues that the opioid epidemic was produced by a “fraudulent scheme” by Purdue Pharma, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals and Endo Pharmaceuticals “to mislead doctors and the public about the need for, and addictive nature of, opioid drugs.”

“They put millions of dollars into advertising. They put lots of sales forces out there. And they supported legislation that made this stuff far more available than it was before. And it’s not enough to say, ‘Well, people misused it,’ ” Staubus said. “When you put way too many drugs, for way too many bad reasons, into way too many people’s hands, prescribed by way too many people, you get what we have in our area, which is an epidemic.”

Public health experts agree that legal painkillers have been central to a crisis best known for its heroin component. The majority of heroin users started with prescription opioids, which in the 1990s and 2000s became much more widely prescribed than in the past.

And one of the primary targets of the suits has already admitted to fraudulent behaviour. OxyContin maker Purdue pleaded guilty to a criminal felony in 2007, agreeing to a $600-million settlement and admitting that it inaccurately promoted the product — between 1995 and 2001 — as less prone to be abused than other drugs.

But experts say the current lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies will be harder to win than the slam-dunk case against their tobacco counterparts.

“The drug companies are not utterly defenceless. There are issues they can raise, and they’re pretty good at it,” said Richard Ausness, a University of Kentucky law professor who has studied opioid suits.

Prescription opioids can be used safely and for good health reasons. U.S. government health regulators studied and endorsed the prescription opioids. And there are, in most cases, medical professionals in between the pharmaceutical companies and the end user.

“Unlike tobacco companies, our products are medicines approved by FDA, prescribed by doctors, and dispensed by pharmacists, as treatments for patients suffering pain,” Purdue said in an email, adding that the company “vigorously” denies the allegations and is “committed to working collaboratively to find solutions” to the opioid crisis.

Endo, the maker of Percocet and Opana, declined to comment on litigation. “Our top priorities include patient safety and ensuring that patients with chronic pain have access to safe and effective therapeutic options,” the company said.

Ausness said the weaknesses of the lawsuits may never be exposed in court. Such suits are often filed with the intention of shaming optics-conscious companies into a settlement.

“Once the defendants are sufficiently demonized,” Ausness said, “a lot of problems disappear. Courts just don’t like them and juries don’t like them, and the plaintiffs win the public relations battle.”

In Dutchess County in southeastern New York, the number of overdose deaths more than doubled between 2005 and 2016, from 24 to 63. The county is spending millions on a new 24-hour “stabilization centre” to help people dealing with addiction or mental illness.

“I think the magnitude of loss, and the size, scale and scope of the crisis, demands that we hold every party responsible. Government at my level is taking responsibility, and we believe that those who engaged in what clearly were deceptive practices and pressure should take some responsibility as well,” said Dutchess Executive Marcus Molinaro, who announced his county’s lawsuit in June.

“What are our options but have them participate in financing the response?”

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