By: Keri Blakinger
Harris County jumped into the legal fight against the opioid crisis, joining dozens of cities and counties in filing suit against the giant pharmaceutical companies responsible for making the painkillers fueling the growing overdose epidemic.
The sweeping 39-page legal claim filed in Harris County court Wednesday accuses 21 companies and a handful of individual doctors and one pharmacist of conspiracy, neglect and creating a public nuisance in a case that is already drawing comparisons to the multi-billion-dollar Big Tobacco litigation filed by state attorneys general in the 1990s.
"These defendants placed their quest for profits above the public good," County Attorney Vince Ryan said Wednesday. "Unfortunately Harris County has found itself in a battle against opioids and the crushing financial effect of this epidemic."
The county is seeking actual and punitive damages, penalties and fines, which could easily stretch into the millions of dollars, though the suit doesn't specify a dollar figure. The county is also asking that the companies be stopped from marketing their products in a way that could encourage over-prescribing.
"This is really, really as bad as one can imagine," Ryan said. "Over 90 people a day are dying in this country because of opioid addictions."
The number of opioid-related deaths has risen steadily in Harris County in the past five years. In 2012, Harris County recorded 264 opioid-related deaths, according to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. Last year 311 people died from opioids, a category that includes everything from the codeine in some cough syrups and super-potent fentanyl to heroin and prescription oxycodone.
"We're not talking about a minor epidemic," Ryan said.
The sharply worded legal claim accuses the defendants of knowingly using a "campaign of lies, half-truths and deceptions" to encourage over-prescribing addictive drugs.
"By spending millions of dollars to convince the populace that they needed and would benefit from the use of the defendants' opioid drugs, these tortfeasors produced a network of drug distributors, dispensers and prescribers who preyed upon a generation of dependent drug users and abusers who believed their physical ailments were being appropriately treated by the defendants' prescription drugs," the suit alleges. "This industry-wide misbehavior has overwhelmed society in general and Harris County in particular."
Among the big-name drugmakers targeted by the suit is Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the maker of OxyContin. The Connecticut-based company has been sued repeatedly over its best-selling painkiller, which has netted more than $2.5 billion in sales in recent years, according to court documents.
Purdue, along with some of the other defendants, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Jannsen Pharmaceuticals, which makes fentanyl patches, noted that its company's products account for less than 1 percent of opioid prescriptions written annually.
"We recognize opioid abuse and addiction is a serious public health issue that must be addressed," a company spokesman said. "We believe the allegations in lawsuits against our company are both legally and factually unfounded."
Across the country, dozens of cities and counties have already turned to legal action to stem the tide of addictive prescription drugs.
Chicago filed suit early on, followed later by Newark, Seattle, Indianapolis and others. The states of Ohio, Washington and Montana have all sued, too. Typically, the suits allege that the drugmakers vigorously marketed addictive drugs, while overstating the benefits and understating the risks.
"We're glad that other communities are joining this fight," said Svante Myrick, mayor of the upstate New York city of Ithaca, which filed a similar suit earlier this year. The city of roughly 30,000, which is home to Cornell University, has been particularly hard-hit by the opioid epidemic and made national headlines last year for its proposal to offer safe spaces for injection drug users.
In Texas, Upshur County northwest of Longview was the first to file suit back in September, with a federal claim accusing the major pharmaceutical companies — including Purdue — of using "now-debunked studies" to push for more access to powerful painkillers. Other Lone Star state counties have since followed suit.
Some municipalities have already met with success. Earlier this year, West Virginia reached multimillion-dollar settlements with two drug distributors, according to local media reports.
The state of Kentucky sued Purdue back in 2007 — the same year the company entered a guilty plea and agreed to pay $600 million to wrap up criminal charges of misbranding its product. Eight years later, the Blue Grass state finally won a $24 million settlement.
Last month, Bloomberg reported on a proposed settlement between the drugmaker and attorneys general in states that hadn't sued yet. Earlier this year, Texas joined with 40 other states to unveil an investigation into opioid makers and distributors.
The current spate of civil claims have sparked comparisons to Big Tobacco lawsuits in the 1990s, when attorneys general from 46 states won a historic, $200 billion settlement from the industry.
But Katharine Neill Harris, a researcher with Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, said it's not clear the opioid suits will have the same outcome.
"This is more complicated though than the way that the lawsuits occurred with the tobacco industry because you have so many more players," she said.
Instead of a slew of states suing, the opioid litigation involves a variety of municipalities, some with claims in local courts and others with filings in the federal system. "It's going to be interesting to see what happens," she said.
Even before Wednesday's lawsuit, local law enforcement had already begun taking steps to beat back the crisis. The Harris County Sheriff's Office announced over the summer plans to equip deputies with overdose-reversing Narcan, in an effort to protect deputies from accidental exposures.
Last month, the sheriff's office launched a pilot program offering Vivitrol, a monthly shot designed to combat heroin use, to inmates leaving the county jail. County stakeholders have also tossed around other possible solutions, like a heroin detox center or a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program.
But all those responses take time and money from local governments and law enforcement — resources the county listed in the costly damages it wants covered.
"The bottom line is we in Harris County have suffered already too much because of opioids and the marketing and distribution of these opioids by the manufacturers and distributors," Ryan said. "We believe we must stop these disastrous consequences."