Ohio AG Mike DeWine sues drug companies over opiate crisis

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine on Wednesday announced that the state is filing suit against five pharmaceutical companies that marketed powerfully addictive prescription pain medication — which many believe triggered the deadly opiate addiction crisis that has killed 21,000 Ohioans since 2007.

“Today this lawsuit is about justice, it’s about fairness, it’s about what is right,” DeWine said at a press conference in Columbus. Those who played a “significant role” in creating the mess should help pay to clean it up, he said.

Related: Fighting heroin crisis: What Ohio gubernatorial candidates plan to do

The suit is against Purdue Pharma, Endo Health Solutions, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and its subsidiary Cephalon, Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals and Allergan. DeWine alleges that the companies spent millions of dollars to deceptively market their drugs to doctors and patients in Ohio, leading to the addiction crisis that is “a human tragedy of epic proportion.”

The suit claims the companies violated Ohio’s Consumer Sales Practices Act, committed Medicaid fraud, created a public nuisance and violated the Ohio Corrupt Practices Act. It seeks an injunction, damages for the state and repayment for consumers.

Janssen said the allegations in the lawsuit are legally and factually unfounded and the company has acted responsibly and in the best interest of patients.

Purdue Pharma said: “We share the attorney general’s concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions.” The company added that OxyContin accounts for less than 2 percent of the opioid painkiller market and Purdue supports prescription monitoring programs and access to Naloxone, which reverses an overdose.

Teva, Endo and Allergan declined comment.

RELATED: Ohio gets $26 million to fight opioids

The lawsuit is filed in Ross County Common Pleas Court because southern Ohio was first hit by the opiate crisis, he said.

Christina Arredondo, of Frankfort in Ross County, said her daughter, Felicia Detty, died of a heroin overdose in 2015 at age 24 when she was nearly six months pregnant.

A mother’s story

Tearfully, Arredondo recounted how her daughter’s addiction started with opiates prescribed for an injury around age 18. “And all of a sudden you have this craving and this desire that overrules everything in your entire world,” she said.

Arredondo said she hopes the lawsuit will stop drug makers from pushing prescription opiates. “They’re still creating the addiction every single day. This isn’t over. This nowhere near over. We have to fight this from the top.”

Ohio joins other states, cities and jurisdictions that have already filed suit against prescription drug makers and distributors, arguing they are at least partially responsible for the crisis so they should bear some of the associated medical costs. Connecticut, West Virginia, Kentucky, Mississippi, cities and counties have filed lawsuits over the past several years, arguing that the drug makers and distributors irresponsibly marketed the products and encouraged over prescribing.

Related: Kettering reaches 2016 overdose total before June

Still, DeWine argued that Ohio and Mississippi are the only states that have filed direct lawsuits challenging marketing by drug manufacturers.

Democrats react

DeWine’s lawsuit comes on the heels of Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley releasing a campaign video calling for drug companies to be held responsible for the mess.

Whaley, a Democrat, and DeWine, a Republican, are both in the field of candidates running for governor in 2018.  

Related: What governor candidates plan to do to fight addiction

Whaley said in a statement on Wednesday: “A lawsuit is the right thing to pursue, but as we witnessed with the tobacco class-actions, it can take years for justice to be done.

The drug companies have every reason to drag this out so they can continue to profit off the devastation they have caused with this heroin epidemic.”  

Decades ago, states used a similar legal strategy in suing tobacco companies, arguing the cigarette industry purposely hid how harmful and addictive its products are. States won a $113 billion settlement.

Whaley noted that Dayton was one of the first cities to declare an emergency which allowed the city to institute a needle exchange and she worked to equip Dayton first responders with Naloxone, which can reverse an opiate overdose.

In 2014, Democrat David Pepper, who is now chairman of the state party, campaigned against DeWine for attorney general on a platform that included a plan to sue drug companies that run deceptive marketing campaigns that overstate the benefits and underplay the risks of opioids.

DeWine, who has been attorney general for more than six years, said it was only now that the state had enough evidence to take the matter to court.

More than 21,000 deaths in a decade

According to the Ohio Department of Health, 21,003 people have died from unintentional drug overdoses in the past 10 years, including 1,784 in Montgomery County, 1,074 in Butler County, 357 in Clark County, 332 in Warren County, 289 in Greene County, 173 in Miami County and 56 in Champaign County.

In the past several years, Ohio clamped down on over prescribing, shuttered pill mills, pushed out new guidelines for doctors and other prescribers, made Naloxone more widely available, took steps to prevent “doctor shopping” by drug addicts and offered more treatment programs largely by expanding Medicaid coverage to an additional 715,000 people.

Marc Sweeney, dean of the School of Pharmacy at Cedarville University, said suing pharmaceutical companies is not a silver bullet solution to a very complex problem. He asked why prescribers and regulatory agencies wouldn’t be held liable as well.

“I tend not to be a big fan of suing or bringing lawsuits as a major contributor to a solution, especially since from a legal standpoint the pharmaceutical companies have done absolutely nothing wrong,” Sweeney said.

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