Part-1 of a Continuing Series around America’s Deadly Opioid Crisis
Big Pharmaceutical companies deceived pain-suffering Americans into a vicious cycle of dependency on prescribed opioid drugs such as Hydrocodone, Oxycontin, Perecocet, Morphine and others, say civil attorneys and State Attorney Generals. They recently filed lawsuits against some of America’s largest drug manufacturers, wholesalers, and distributors, to recover compensation as result of skyrocketing healthcare costs including cost for other medical related services.
In many cases, states and family members allege in lawsuits that the opioids caused deaths for “hundreds of thousands.”
“For millions of Americans, their personal battle with opioid addiction did not start in a back alley with a tourniquet and syringe,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, during a press conference, announcing New York state lawsuit against the drug companies.
Legal opioid pain medication has caused enough deaths to devastate this country in unimaginable ways.
According to Centers for Disease Control, approximately 60-plus thousand people died of drug overdose in the U.S. in 2016. That averages to 174 deaths per day. These figures are a 21% increase when compared to 2015, and at least four times the number of such deaths in 1999.
President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency on October 26, 2017. “As Americans, Trump told reporters, we cannot allow this to continue. … It is time to liberate our communities from the scourge of drug addiction. We can do it.”
Senator Edward J. Markey(D-Mass) question Trump’s sincerity to devote maximum resurces to work toward eradicating the opioid scourge. “Trump offered the country a Band-aid when we need a tourniquet,” Markey said, “Today’s announcement is nothing more than a dog-and-pony show in an attempt to demonstrate the Trump administration is not ignoring this crisis.”
Unlike other foreign countries, our healthcare system operates as an industry, not a service. Acting as an industry affords too much power to drug manufacturers, health insurance companies and other medical practices to heavily influence policies and practices.
Therefore, the healthcare industry bottom line is all about profits, not health. And despite the highly addictive opioids, the FDA approved one pill after another. Around 2013, when the opioid epidemic was steadily rising, the FDA allowed the powerful opiate Zohydro onto the market over the repeated objections of its own review committee. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the doctors were fully aware of Zohydro’s dangers, yet the agency appeared more concern about its commercial value.
Undoubtedly for the opioid industry, despite its risk of addiction and possible death, the bottom line is profits. Those profits are to the astronomical tune of over 200 billion dollars made by manufacturers, wholesales, and distributors.
Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia told a British newspaper reporter: “It’s an epidemic because we have a business model for it. Follow the money. Look at the amount of pills they shipped to certain parts of our state. It was a business model.”
Popularity of Opioids Made Billions
During the mid-to-late 1990s, medical experts concluded human pain was insufficently treated and simultaneously Purdue Pharma introduced the opioid drug Oxycontin. That, in essence, changed the game in the medical field how opioids were used and prescribed. Prior to the release of Oxycontin, opioids had been considered dangerously addictive and doctors only prescribed them under very limited circumstances.
To eliminate the danger factor, Purdue claimed Oxycontin was absolutely non-addictive when prescribed for pain, thus allowing Purdue to promote it for long term use. Purdue’s marketing scheme was overwhelmingly successful. They killed it, so to say. Oxycontin sales exploded from $45-$50 million dollars in 1996 to $3-to-$4 billion in 2012. Meanwhile other opioid manufactures got in on the gold rush of money and thereafter legal opioid prescriptions in the U.S. overtly quadrupled from 1999 to 2010.
Between 2012-2013, over 250 million opioid prescriptions were written by doctors, an amount for every American adult to have their own bottle of opioid pills.
Opioid lawsuits are reminiscent of the successful litigation brought by plaintiffs nationwide against big tobacco companies.
Lawsuits Filed Nationwide
From the beginning, only a few states filed lawsuits against the drug companies, states where rural areas experienced the devastation of the opioid epidemic, places like West Virginia, Kentucky, Colorado, Montana and Ohio. At this point, it seems, the lawsuit craze against the giant drug companies is filing suits over the opioid crisis at an alarming pace. Plantiffs are hoping to stem potentially dangerous opioid distribution and subsequently recover the burgeoning past and future cost. Earlier this year, in January, New York City Mayor di Blasio announced the city filed lawsuit against manufacturers and distributors of opioid prescription drugs.
Harris County Texas attorney Vince Ryan, in Houston, announced its lawsuit against drug manufacturers and distributors. “We accuse them of creating a public nuisance of conspiracy and neglect,” Ryan told Houston Chronicle. “These defendants placed their quest for profits above the public good.” The defendants, Ryan added, “engaged in a campaign we believe are lies, half-truths, and deception to create a market and further encourage the long-term use of opioids.”
Purdue spokesman, John Puskar, said the company was “deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis, and yet dedicated to being part of the solution.”
Purdue officials, according to Puskar, vigorously deny allegations seen in lawsuits nationwide.
Lawsuits have been filed against opioid manufacturers and distributors by the state of Montana and a county in Kentucky alleging that the opioid epidemic was part of a business plan, alleging statutory negligence, civil conspiracy, fraud and other complaints.
The Montana suit alleges that defendants, Purdue Pharma, used practices “to promote opioids deceptively and illegally in order to significantly increase sales and generate billions of dollars in revenue.” The complaint claims that the company misrepresents the risks and benefits of opioids, which has led to “the rampant use, overuse, and abuse of opioids [that] is devastating Montana and its families.”
Here is a breakdown of other lawsuits filed against major drug companies that distributed oversupply of opioids, according to citylab:
Since 2000, 10,000 people have died from opioid overdoses in Washington state; in King County, where Seattle is located, two-thirds of the 332 drug-use deaths in the last year were opioid-related. Each year, the numbers rise, according to University of Washington researchers.
In September, the state of Washington and the city of Seattle both announced they would separately sue pharmaceutical companies for their role in that acceleration.
Seattle’s case, led by city attorney Pete Holmes, targets Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals. It’s not just that the companies aggressively peddled opioids to doctors, attorneys argue: it’s that they downplayed – and in some cases failed to disclose entirely – the dangerous and addictive nature of the drugs in question. At the same time, they overstated the drugs’ benefits.
They even introduced the new medical concept of “pseudo-addiction,” recommending that doctors respond to warning signs of opioid addiction by prescribing more opioids. If a patient asks for higher dosages of drugs, hoards drugs, or wants early refills of drugs, they’re not addicted – they really just need more drugs to quell their pain, Purdue claimed.
Cities are calling the theory bogus – it’s based primarily on one cancer study – but Purdue has insisted it’s legally and medically valid: the FDA itself approved OxyContin labeling that “embodies the concept” of pseudo addiction, Purdue says.
“Purdue Pharma has knowingly conducted an uncontrolled experiment on the people of Washington state,” said Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson at a news conference. Teva and Purdue are denying these allegations, saying they are dedicated to balancing the dual priorities of providing crucial drugs and preventing drug abuse.
It was actually a much smaller locale that brought the first of Washington’s lawsuits. The city of Everett, located north of Seattle with a population of 108,000, alleged in January that Purdue knew their pills were being trafficked illegally within the city, but did not intervene or alert law enforcement. In September, a Seattle judge ruled that the city of Everett could proceed with the lawsuit, rejecting the pharmaceutical company’s March argument that the city’s case had no merit. Still, Purdue told CBS News that Everett’s narrative of their involvement in the Everett crisis is “flawed” and “inaccurate.”
Last year, 1,498 people died of an overdose across the state of Indiana, and 345 of them were within Indianapolis’ Marion County. In Indianapolis alone, overdose medication (the expensive and hard-to-administer drug, Narcan) has been deployed by paramedics 1,670 times so far in 2017.
This fall, the city hired a private firm tasked with arguing that Big Pharma conspired to increase sales by misrepresenting how addictive their drugs really were. The city also alleges that, when “unquestionably suspicious” opioid orders were requested, drug companies failed to report them. “They all sought relief from pain and were instead administered addiction,” said Mayor Hogsett in a news conference.
Indianapolis hasn’t identified all the defendants yet, but the mayor and an attorney named Purdue Pharma, Endo, Teva and three distributors (Cardinal Health, McKesson Corporation and Amerisource Bergen) as likely targets – those who sold the bulk of the OxyContin and oxycodone to Indianapolis residents.
Purdue “vigorously den[ies] these allegations”; Teva and Endo wrote of their commitment to making drugs accessible but keeping drug use safe and appropriate; and the representative for all three city distributors said that while they, too, want to be part of the solution, they “aren’t willing to be scapegoats.” It’s a bigger problem than just distribution, they insist.
Journalist Clarence Walker can be reached at: [email protected]