San Diego is among 30 counties in California filing federal lawsuits against some of the nation’s largest opioid manufacturers, pharmacies and distributors, accusing the corporations of deception and greed that resulted in a nationwide public health crisis of addiction and overdose deaths.
The counties, organized under the California Opioid Consortium, join more than 500 other public entities across the country that have filed similar litigation.
The dozen-plus companies named in the lawsuit include OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation, CVS Health Corp. and Walmart.
They are being sued under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, better known as RICO, as well as claims that include false advertising, public nuisance and unjust enrichment.
At 325 pages, San Diego County’s lawsuit — filed in San Diego federal court Tuesday — argues that the current crisis didn’t happen by accident, but quickly developed due to unrelenting marketing campaigns that reshaped how doctors and patients regarded opioids.
“The manufacturers aggressively pushed highly addictive, dangerous opioids, falsely representing to doctors that patients would only rarely succumb to drug addiction,” the lawsuit states. “These pharmaceutical companies aggressively advertised to and persuaded doctors to prescribe highly addictive, dangerous opioids, turning patients into drug addicts for their own corporate profit.”
Distributors, in turn, are accused of failing to monitor or investigate suspicious orders of prescription opioids, allowing the cycle of abuse to fester, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit outlines some corporate actions that have been uncovered over the past decade by investigative news reports, government probes and other litigation.
The toll of the epidemic has been extraordinary.
In 2016, drug overdoses killed roughly 64,000 people in the United States, an increase of more than 22 percent over the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Opioids are largely to blame, experts say.
San Diego County’s version of the lawsuit points out the devastating impact locally, noting opioids have been involved in nearly 3,500 deaths from 2000 to 2015.
Communities that have been particularly hard hit include Jacumba, Boulevard and Guatay, where more than 100 pills were dispensed for every person in 2015, the lawsuit says. Pine Valley and Pala had the two highest death rates in 2016 in the county due to opioid overdoses, the complaint states.
The lawsuits not only seek to end the crisis but also reimburse taxpayers for the costs to society — from treatment programs to caring for children of addicts to new government infrastructure needed to handle the epidemic.
County officials declined to discuss the litigation Tuesday.
Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson that makes fentanyl drug Duragesic among other painkillers, said its actions “marketing and promotion of these medicines were appropriate and responsible.”
“The labels for our prescription opioid pain medicines provide information about their risks and benefits, and the allegations made against our company are baseless and unsubstantiated. In fact, our medications have some of the lowest rates of abuse among this class of medications,” the company said in a statement. “Opioid abuse and addiction are serious public health issues. We are committed to being part of the ongoing dialogue and to doing our part to find ways to address this crisis.”
The Healthcare Distribution Alliance, a trade association that is representing the wholesale distributors in these cases, said distributors’ role in the supply chain does not drive demand and is heavily regulated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
“Given our role, the idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated,” John Parker, senior vice president of the alliance, said in a statement. “Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation.”
Purdue Pharma did not respond to a request for comment, but its website outlines steps the company has taken to address the opioid crisis, including researching non-opioid painkillers and funding efforts to track prescriptions. “We have long been an industry leader in the fight against opioid abuse and diversion and have dedicated significant resources to address the challenge,” the website says.
The counties in the state consortium are being represented by massive plaintiff’s firm Baron & Budd and include Imperial, Sacramento, Contra Costa and Monterey. Other California entities have decided to bring their own lawsuits, including the city of Los Angeles earlier this month.
The latest lawsuits are expected to be part of a multi-district litigation process, in which a single judge oversees much of the litigation and consolidates efforts to help preserve resources and to manage a possible global settlement. This effort is being overseen by a federal judge in Ohio, where more than 350 cases have been consolidated thus far.
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