Damages sought in opioid crisis
By Robert Cloud
Waupaca County joined 27 other Wisconsin counties in a federal suit against several pharmaceutical companies.
The counties are seeking compensation for the millions of dollars they are spending in response to the opioid epidemic.
They accuse the pharmaceutical companies of a “nefarious and deceptive” marking campaign that resulted in addiction to painkillers, then later to the growing heroin problem.
According to Waupaca County’s civil complaint, filed Nov. 7 in the Eastern Wisconsin District Court, “County governments and the services they provide their citizens have been strained to the breaking point by this public health crisis.”
The complaint notes that from 2013-15 statewide, 1,824 people have died as a result of opioid overdose.
Between 2013-15, at least six people in Waupaca County have died as a result of opioid overdose.
“Between 2012 and 2014 there were 53 hospital encounters involving opioid poisoning in Waupaca County,” the complaint says. “In 2016, there were 230 hospital encounters related to opioids in Waupaca County.”
In Waupaca County, there were an estimated 58 ambulance calls where naxolene was administered due to an opioid overdose from 2013-15. There were also 16 babies born in the county with neonatal abstinence syndrome from 2012-14.
Although no figure is presented, the complaint says Waupaca County is paying “a significant amount for health care costs that stem from prescription opioid dependency. These costs include unnecessary and excessive opioid prescriptions, substance abuse treatment services, ambulatory services, emergency department services and inpatient hospital services, among others.”
Waupaca County has incurred substantial economic, administrative and social costs relating to opioid addiction and abuse.
Those costs include growing burdens on law enforcement, child protective services, lost productivity and prevention programs.
Deceptive marketing alleged
“The dramatic increase in prescription opioid use over the last two decades, and the resultant public-health crisis, is no accident,” the county argues.
The county’s 74-page complaint names Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Endo Health Solutions Inc., Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Teva Pharmaceuticals and their subsidiaries.
In a detailed account, the complaint alleges pharmaceutical companies engaged in multi-million dollar marketing campaigns to convince physicians and medical providers that opioid-based painkillers were a safe and effective means to treat long-term, chronic pain.
“Defendants sought to distort medical and public perception of existing scientific data,” the complaint says. “Defendants did not disclose to prescribers, patients or the public that evidence in support of their promotional claims was inconclusive, non-existent or unavailable. Rather, each Defendant disseminated misleading and unsupported messages that caused the target audience to believe those messages were corroborated by scientific evidence.”
The county argues that the pharmaceutical companies provided funding to generate articles, create continuing medical education courses and other informational materials and support a network of professional societies and advocacy groups to create the impression of a “phony consensus supporting the long-term use of opioids.”
“Defendants knew, however, that their opioid products were addictive, subject to abuse and not safe or efficacious for long-term use,” the complaint says.
The alleged result of the marketing campaign was an explosion in the number of prescriptions for opioid painkillers.
The complaint says that while Americans represent only 4.6 percent of the world’s population, they consume over 80 percent of the world’s opioids.
Since 1999, the amount of prescription opioids sold in the United States has nearly quadrupled.
“In 2010, 254 million prescriptions for opioids were filled in the U.S. – enough to medicate every adult in America around the clock for a month. In that year, 20 percent of all doctors’ visits resulted in the prescription of an opioid,” the complaint says.
Response from Purdue Pharma
Purdue Pharma provided the following response in an email to the Waupaca County Post:
“We are deeply troubled by the opioid crisis and we are dedicated to being part of the solution.
“As a company grounded in science, we must balance patient access to FDA-approved medicines, while working collaboratively to solve this public health challenge.
“Although our products account for approximately 2 percent of the total opioid prescriptions, as a company, we’ve distributed the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, developed the first FDA-approved opioid medication with abuse-deterrent properties and partner with law enforcement to ensure access to naloxone.
“We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.”