Opioid makers, distributors targeted in numerous suits
The companies that manufacture and distribute highly addictive painkillers are facing a multitude of lawsuits for the toll their product has taken on communities across the country as the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history continues to escalate.
Within the past year, at least 25 states, cities and counties have filed civil cases against manufacturers, distributors and large drugstore chains that make up the $13 billion-a-year opioid industry. In the past few weeks alone, the attorneys general for Ohio and Missouri, along with the district attorneys for three counties in Tennessee, filed suits against the industry — and the attorney general for Oklahoma filed suit on Friday.
The strategy has been prompted by frustration over rising death rates and the increasing costs of addressing the continuing public health crisis. After years of government and pharmaceutical firms failing to control the problem, some lawyers say the suits have the potential to force the industry to curb practices that contribute to it.
“If they’re not going to do it voluntarily, we’re going to drag them to the table and make them,” said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who sued five drug manufacturers for the costs of the opioid epidemic.
Dozens of other state, county and city governments and local law enforcement agencies are considering legal action. Some states are interviewing law firms.
Delaware is among a handful of states that are issuing “requests for proposals” from law firms.
In addition, more than half the country’s state attorneys general — Republicans and Democrats — have banded together to investigate the industry.
Two congressional panels also are examining the industry — the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The Justice Department’s Inspector General is investigating why the Drug Enforcement Administration slowed enforcement efforts against drug distribution companies.
Representatives of the companies deny wrongdoing and vow to vigorously defend themselves. They said they have taken steps to prevent the diversion of their drugs to the black market. Stemming the epidemic, they said, will take a coordinated effort by doctors, the industry and federal and local government agencies.
In a blow to the industry, the D.C. Court of Appeals on Friday rejected arguments from a drug distributor, Masters Pharmaceutical, that would have undermined the DEA’s ability to hold companies responsible for pain pills that are diverted to the black market.
The lawsuits come as states and communities grapple with the economic impact of a prescription drug epidemic that has resulted in nearly 180,000 overdose deaths between 2000 and 2015 — more than three times the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War. The epidemic has led to thousands more deaths from overdoses of heroin and fentanyl, which are becoming easier and cheaper to obtain than prescription drugs.
The suits are reminiscent of the tobacco cases filed two decades ago. In the 1990s, 46 attorneys general eventually combined their resources to sue the tobacco companies. In 1998, the industry settled those suits, paying more than $200 billion.
During a meeting of the Democratic Attorneys General Association in May in Portland, Ore., industry officials said they were not to blame for the epidemic. Instead, they said during a panel discussion that they were part of the solution and had put programs in place to prevent the illegal use of pain pills.
Grant Woods, a former Arizona attorney general who was the first Republican to sue the tobacco companies, said he was appalled by what he heard. As the officials finished their presentations, Woods stood from his seat in the crowded sixthfloor ballroom of The Nines resort hotel and told them they all deserved to be sued.
Woods has joined forces with another veteran of the tobacco lawsuits, Mike Moore, who served as the attorney general for Mississippi and filed the first of the tobacco suits. The two attorneys, along with other high-profile lawyers, are now working for Ohio and Mississippi on their opioid cases, and they are signing up other states to sue the companies.
The suits target some of the biggest names in the business, including McKesson, Johnson & Johnson and CVS.
Some of the suits allege that the companies fraudulently marketed opioids to the public. Others claim that the companies failed to report suspiciously large orders of prescription pain pills placed by distributors and pharmacies.
McKesson, the largest drug distribution company in the country, said in a statement: “While McKesson doesn’t manufacture, prescribe, or dispense opioids, we have taken steps to play a leadership role in combatting this epidemic in close partnership with doctors, pharmacists, the DEA and other organizations across the supply chain.”
Johnson & Johnson’s pharmaceutical unit, Janssen Pharmaceutical, issued a statement saying the company is “continuing to work with stakeholders to support” the “safe and appropriate use” of opioids.
CVS said it has “stringent” procedures to keep prescription pain pills out of the hands of drug addicts and dealers.
“CVS Health is committed to the highest standards of ethics and business practices, including complying with all federal and state laws governing the dispensing of controlled substance prescriptions, and is dedicated to reducing prescription drug abuse and diversion,” the company said in a statement.