Saying narcotics manufacturers need to be held accountable for the addiction epidemic their drugs are at the heart of, California and the city of Chicago file a lawsuit.
The city of Chicago and Orange and Santa Clara counties in California have filed a lawsuit against five of the world’s major narcotics manufacturers as part of their efforts to curb addiction to prescription pain medications such as OxyContin.
News of the lawsuit comes about a year after reports revealed that around6.1 million people abused prescription drugs in the United States, with the most commonly abused drugs being prescription painkillers or opioid pain relievers such as Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, Xanax, Valium, Adderall and Ritalin.
The lawsuit, which was filed by seven former OxyContin users and the relatives of former users, names Purdue Frederick Co., Purdue Pharma L.P., Purdue Pharma Inc., Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Ltd., Cephalon, Inc., Johnson & Johnson, Endo Health Solutions Inc. and Actavis, PLC, as defendants.
Officials from both California counties, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the entire state of California, as well as officials with the city of Chicago, allege that these companies propelled the drug epidemic in the U.S. by conducting a “campaign of deception” toward the American public in order to increase sales of painkillers.
Drugs such as OxyContin and Vicodin are often prescribed to those who suffer from chronic pain, as well as common ailments such as headaches, back pain and arthritis, even though the drugs are highly addictive and have a known history of abuse.
Twenty-five-year-old Nicole Dowdell knows all too well how intoxicating painkillers can be. Three years ago Dowdell was given Norco after cutting her finger so severely she needed surgery. After just one month of taking the painkiller, Dowdell says she was addicted.
“Once you start it, you try to milk the situation for what it is,” Dowdell said. When she had pain in her back, a headache or experienced any other discomfort, Dowdell would take Norco. Though she started out swallowing the pills, she eventually began to snort Norco.
Dowdell is far from alone in her addiction to prescription painkillers, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recognize addiction to painkillers is a national epidemic, as painkillers are involved in more than 16,000 deaths each year.
In Orange County, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas says there is a painkiller-related death just about every other day, and he pursued the case against the pharmaceutical companies “as a matter of public protection.” In Santa Clara County, the number of opioid-related deaths tripled from 2003 to 2013, according to assistant County Counsel Danny Chou.
“The reason that this crisis has occurred is based on the decades-long marketing plan by these drug companies to create a market for these drugs that never should have existed. And this has spawned a new generation of addicts and abusers,” Chou said, adding that these pharmaceutical companies also secretly funded advocacy organizations like the American Pain Foundation that appeared to be independent, but were actually promoting the use of these drugs.
Santa Clara County officials report they have spent millions of dollars treating patients at local hospitals who are suffering or recovering from painkiller addictions and overdoses.
In addition to the social costs, painkillers also have high economic costs. Anna Lembke, director of Stanford University’s addiction medicine program, says doctors don’t often think about how addictive a substance is before they prescribe it to a patient. She also says insurance companies pay doctors based on the number of patients they see.
Since prescribing a pill doesn’t take very long, doctors often just write a prescription and send a patient on his or her way.
“Now you add to that, the pharmaceutical companies aggressively marketing these miracle cures for chronic pain,” Lembke said, “plus patients coming in saying I’m in terrible pain, won’t you help me? So you’ve got Vicodin over here — you prescribe it. Your patient comes back next time and says thank you so much, doctor. That worked great. I feel so much better. Well, you’re going to keep prescribing it.”
Rackauckas agrees that the problem stems from pharmaceutical companies putting profits ahead of patient care. “In order to put money in their pockets, they’ve done serious harm to many thousands of people.”
He says the goal of the lawsuit is “to stop the lies about what these drugs do,” in addition to garnering compensation for health problems the seven plaintiffs have faced as a direct result of using these drugs.
The plaintiffs have also asked the court to force the pharmaceutical companies to forfeit revenue from these drugs, arguing that while all of the painkillers have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, many doctors didn’t prescribe the painkillers initially because they were concerned people could easily become addicted. As a result of these fears, the drugs were only given to those who had cancer pain or those who suffered from other terminal illnesses.
Displeased that the market for these painkillers wasn’t as large as they hoped, plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege that the drug companies created a dishonest campaign about the drugs, their side effects and the potential for addiction, and even went so far to hire “key opinion leaders” to convince their peers in the medical field that these drugs were safe for everyday use.
The lawsuit claims that marketing strategy — not medical breakthroughs — made painkillers as popular as they are today, which is why the plaintiffs argue someone needs to hold these pharmaceutical companies responsible.
Since 2000, there have been a handful of similar lawsuits trying to force pharmaceutical companies to take responsibility for the drugs they produce, as well as damning reports in the media about the negative impact of prescription drugs, yet the problem persists.
Whether the outcome of this lawsuit will be any different remains to be seen, but as Robert Fellmeth, a University of San Diego School of Law professor and former deputy district attorney, pointed out, “California is suffering disproportionately from this problem, so it is appropriate for this state to take up this hammer.”