County sues drugmakers for opiod 'crisis'
Pierce County sued manufacturers of prescription opioids last Thursday, the day before politicians with various county constituencies joined professionals from the fields of healthcare, education and substance abuse at an invitation-only summit meeting on the issue of opiod abuse.
The lawsuit filed Feb. 1 by Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist against the three largest makers and marketers of prescription opioids in the United States – Purdue, Endo and Janssen – alleges an “opioid crisis” was created by the marketing practices of pharmaceutical companies that provided false and misleading information to doctors and patients. The lawsuit disputes claims by the companies that opioids aren’t addictive and area a safe way to treat long-term and chronic pain.
“This is the first time I've asked the County Council” in his nine years as Pierce’s top prosecutor “to file a lawsuit. I'm confident we have a strong case,” Lindberg said.
Opioid overdoses reportedly are the leading cause of death in the U.S. In Pierce County, the number of opioid-related deaths reached 423 in 2016,
more than half of the local homeless population is hooked on opioids, certain types of crime are driven by opioid addiction, and about 10 percent of high school sophomores during 2006-14 reported using painkillers to get high, according to county officials.
Lindbergh said revenues for the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the drugs have skyrocketed. Purdue alone had estimated sales of more than $35 billion in opioids since 1996, he claimed.
Pierce County joins the state of Washington, the cities of Tacoma and Seattle, and other government entities nationwide in litigation against Purdue, the maker of Oxycontin, a well-known opioid pain reliever.
For its case, the county is using Keller Rohrback, a Seattle-based law firm that specializes in large-scale litigation, as outside counsel on a contingency-fee basis.
The summit meeting Feb. 2 at the University of Washington-Tacoma came on the heels of several months of work by the Pierce County Opioid Task Force, a group developing strategies to help address wrongful overuse of pain relievers.
The County Council “declared an opioid crisis in Pierce County last year. This summit is a small part of the action behind that declaration,” said Councilman Derek Young.
Elected officials participating in the gathering included Lindquist and Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor. They gave presentations on the roles of criminal justice and law enforcement in relation to the opioid issue.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell and U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, whose 10th Congressional District includes the south Pierce County areas of Graham, South Hill, Spanaway and Roy, also spoke at the summit.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioids include heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine and morphine. The pain relievers are generally safe when taken for a short time as prescribed by a doctor, but can be addictive because they produce euphoria. Regular use—even prescribed by a doctor—can lead to dependency, overdoses and deaths.