Multnomah County filed suit this week against drug companies, distributors and doctors saying that they conspired to hide the danger of prescription pain pills in order to promote the widespread, long-term and lucrative use of their opioid products.
Among the better-known defendants: Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and Cephalon, which makes and distributed Actiq and generic opioids, and Endo Health Solutions Inc., which makes and distributed Percodan and Percocet. Others named include Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Actavis PLC, Mallinckrodt PLC and INSYS Therapeutics.
The County’s claim, filed Aug. 3 in Multnomah County Circuit Court, said that drug companies spent vast sums of money “marketing, advertising, generating articles, holding continuing medical education courses, making sales visits to individual doctors, and supporting a network of professional societies and advocacy groups intended to create a new, yet false, consensus supporting the long-term use of opioids.”
Such efforts were “wildly successful,’’ the County claims, generating billions in profits, but also creating a “man-made, profit driven public health crisis/epidemic.’’
That epidemic has had far-reaching financial and social consequences locally where Multnomah County is battling the crisis in public safety and treatment programs, primary care clinics, jails, homeless and mental health and the ongoing diversion of public dollars. The County has spent an estimated $100 million so far and expects to spend far more than that in the future.
High rates of abuse reach
According to state and federal reports: Oregon currently has the highest rate of opiate abuse among people under age 25 in the United States. More than half of the drug overdose deaths in Oregon are related to prescription opioids such as OxyContin and Vicodin. Between 2000 and 2013 there were 2,226 deaths in Oregon due to prescription opioid drug overdose. Oregon also consistently ranks near the top among all states in the non-medical use of prescription pain relievers. In 2013, 3.6 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers were dispensed in Oregon, enough for 925 opioid prescriptions for every 1,000 residents. More than 1 in 5 people in the tri-county region receives an opioid prescription every year.
The Multnomah County Attorney filed the lawsuit in collaboration with Portland attorney Nick Kahl and Alabama-based Wiggins, Childs, Pantazis, Fisher & Goldfarb. In addition to the drug makers, the suit also names distributors who failed to respond to suspicious orders or unlawful diversion of medicine for illegal or abusive purposes. And it names health care providers for participating in the marketing and distribution of the drugs.
Board declares distribution efforts a public nuisance
On July 27, 2017, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to declare the improper and wrongful supply and distribution of prescription opioid pain pills as an on-going public nuisance. The board’s action set the stage for the legal action this week.
When introducing the resolution, Dr. Sharon Meieran, commissioner for District 1, said, “as an emergency physician, I’ve seen so much suffering related to the opioid epidemic...a 12 year old girl who got like 100 Percocet tablets after minor wrist surgery, whose mother was taking her around to different ERs to get refills….people dead after an opioid overdose, who were brought back with naloxone, the reversal agent. And I’ve seen people brought in having died from an opioid overdose, and it’s been too late to resuscitate them.’’
Dr. Meieran said that as people heard the statistics on the epidemic, “please remember that each one is a person - a family member, a friend, a neighbor, a co-worker, a parent at your kid’s school.’’You can read the complaint