Cincinnati suing big pharma for opioid epidemic

Updated: Aug. 15, 2017 at 2:40 PM EDT
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CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - Opioid abuse is rampant in Ohio — first responders are increasingly spending their time reviving addicts and coroners' offices are running out of space to store bodies.

In recent years, drug abuse is one of the leading causes of death around Cincinnati.

Who is responsible for this? Cincinnati is taking pharmaceutical companies who downplayed the addictive nature of their drugs to court. Mayor John Cranley says they can be held legally responsible for the crisis many say snowballed from over-prescription of pain killers.

The drugs once intended for treat acute, short-term pain have been prescribed by doctors at higher rates and for longer durations. Cranley and other officials across the country say drug companies played a major role in promoting that change for profit, and the consequences are patients turning to heroin after becoming addicted.

Cranley on Tuesday announced the Queen City will be joining some attorneys general, states and cities such as Dayton in going after big pharma.

The announcement comes just as new federal data shows drug abuse deaths are on the rise, despite the efforts from cities and states to curtail the epidemic. In 2016, the National Center for Health Statistics estimates drug overdose death hit a record 19.9 per 100,000 people — up from 16.7 in 2015.

Named in the city's suit is  AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson Corporation. Cranley says these companies have failed to control the high volume of opioid shipments to pharmacies and hospitals, violating the Controlled Substances Act passed in 1970.

Cincinnati's lawsuit seeks recovery money the city has spent on the public nuisance cause by the opioid epidemic, including the price of medical care and future damages.

"We are coming after them," Cranley said at a press conference Tuesday. "What's motivating these companies is greed."

The city's lawsuit follows similar cases in California, Illinois, New York and Mississippi. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine filed a suit in May, claiming the drug companies "borrowed a page from Big Tobacco" by "trivializing the risks of opioids while overstating the benefits of using them for chronic pain."

The defendants in the Ohio case include Johnson & Johnson, Pharmaceutical Industriesm, Purdue Pharma and others.

Middle-aged white men suffer disproportionately from opioid abuse, and the states with the highest overdose tolls are Ohio, Kentucky, New Hampshire and West Virginia, according to the NCHS.

"These companies have made billions of dollars, partly by destroying lives," Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld said. "There is blood on their hands."

The lawsuits may not be as outlandish as they may sound at face value and there's significant historical precedent for public officials going after private companies. In the 1990s, the tobacco industry was slammed with litigation from 46 states and local jurisdictions — which led to the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement in 1998. The settlement eventually cost the tobacco industry more than $200 billion.

The states settled Medicaid lawsuit for recovery of tobacco-related health care costs, but also exempted the companies from private liability harm from tobacco use. The company's agreement to scale down marketing and pay in perpetuity annual payments to the states for compensation.

Last week, President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency just days after Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price downplayed the need for a nationwide declaration.

"We're going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis," Trump said at his New Jersey golf club Thursday. The president's announcement was not tied to any policy or specific goals. However, he has said in the past the crisis can be fought by beefing up law enforcement and constructing a multi-billion-dollar southern border wall — which Senate Republicans have expressed little-to-no support for.

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