The Growing Legal Battles Against Opioid Manufacturers


Utah’s Salt Lake County is the latest governing body to enter the legal battle against opioid manufacturers, distributors and prescribers. Governments are seeking financial restitution for the funds they have spent on battling addiction to prescription opioid medications.

Last week the Utah county filed a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers over marketing practices that have been called misleading and have been alleged to lead to high levels of addiction. In its lawsuit Salt Lake County called out manufacturers Purdue Pharmaceuticals, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Allergan and Watson Pharmaceuticals. The county government’s lawsuit also called out a local doctor, Lynne R. Webster, who had been investigated by the federal government for his prescribing practices. The federal investigation was halted in 2014, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

In its lawsuit Salt Lake County pointed to 531 opioid overdoses that occurred between 2014 and 2015 – one about every 33 hours, the government said in its filing, according to the Park Record of Park City, Utah.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said the drug manufacturers “downplayed the serious risk of addiction” as their sales reps urged doctors to rapidly increase prescriptions. On his website McAdams said the rate of opioid prescriptions filed in Salt Lake County resulted in “enough opioid prescriptions to annually supply nine out of every ten Utahans with one prescription each.”

Other counties in Utah, such as Summit County and Tooele County, have also brought suit against the pharmaceutical manufacturing companies. Utah’s state legislature is also weighing whether or not to file a lawsuit against the pharma companies as well.

The governing bodies in Utah are following paths already forged by governments large and small across the United States. Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the maker of OxyContin, has been one of the chief recipients of legal challenges. In 2004 the company settled a lawsuit with the state of West Virginia over marketing practices of its opioid drug. However, county governments across West Virginia still have pending litigation against that company, as well as other opioid manufacturers.

In February the state of Alabama filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma over marketing practices. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall alleged in the lawsuit that Purdue “misrepresented the risks and benefits of opioids,” Reuters reported. That misrepresentation helped the company increase sales, the lawsuit alleges.

Those lawsuits followed similar ones filed across the country by municipal and county governments in Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida, Oregon, Washington, Vermont and more. This morning the state of Kentucky filed a new lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson over opioid marketing. The J&J lawsuit follows legal challenges to McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health the state filed last year.

Earlier this month the U.S. Department of Justice stepped in to add its considerable weight to the legal battle. The DOJ petitioned the courts to participate in settlement discussions as a “friend of the court.” A friend of the court provides information and expertise in order to assist a judge in rendering a verdict. By being named a friend of the court the DOJ said it will ensure the court will be “better able to understand the national consequences of the case,” as well as any legal obligations that settling parties will have to “reimburse the federal treasury.”

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 116 Americans die daily from opioid overdoses. In 2016 there were an estimated 64,000 drug-related deaths in the United States, with the highest increase related to opioid drugs. A recent report released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows opioid-related emergency room visits spiked 30 percent across the states between July 2016 and September 2017.

Last year the U.S. Food and Drug Administration asked Endo Pharmaceuticals to remove its opioid pain medication, reformulated Opana ER, from the market after it was determined the new formulation failed to prevent abuse.

Although Purdue Pharmaceuticals has denied any wrongdoing in its marketing practices, earlier this year the company posted a statement on its website that said there are too many opioid prescriptions now in the medicine cabinets of people across the United States. The company said it supports initiatives to limit the length of first opioid prescriptions. Purdue went on in its statement to talk about the need to curb opioid abuse and its efforts in developing new formulations that could make it harder for the medication to be abused.

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