You can add Suffolk County, N.Y., to the list of local and state governments that are filing lawsuits against the drug makers that market opioid painkillers.
The Long Island county on Wednesday accused several companies — Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), and Endo International (ENDP), among others — of using deceptive marketing to downplay the risks of their painkillers, and of improperly encouraging physicians to prescribe the medicines in a way that caused some patients to become addicts. In the process, the county alleged it paid for prescriptions for its employee health plan inappropriately.
The lawsuit arrives as opioid painkillers continue to be blamed for fueling addiction and crime, and serving as a bridge to a growing heroin trade. Every day, more than 40 Americans die from overdoses of opioid painkillers, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And each year, 2 million people abuse or misuse the drugs.
The allegations are, essentially, identical to lawsuits filed by the city of Chicago; Orange and Santa Clara counties in California; and the state of Mississippi. In each case, the governments have charged the drug makers with illegally widening markets for their opioid painkillers and, as a result, forcing taxpayers to pay for medicines that were often prescribed unnecessarily.
The companies “sought to create a false perception of the safety and efficacy of opioids in the minds of medical professionals and members of the public that would encourage the use of opioids for longer periods of time and to treat a wider range of problems, including such common aches and pains as lower back pain, arthritis, and headaches,” the lawsuit stated.
The drug makers “accomplished that false perception through a coordinated, sophisticated, and highly deceptive marketing campaign that began in the late 1990s, became more aggressive in or about 2006, and continues to the present.” And the lawsuit maintained this marketing campaign, which involved several doctors who were also named as defendants, has been expensive for the county.
Four years ago, there were more than 8,200 emergency room visits due to opiate use, according to the lawsuit. Substance abuse programs in the county served more than 18,700 people for opioid abuse, and deaths from prescription opioids quadrupled since 1999. From 2000 to 2014, nearly half a million people died from such overdoses. In 2012 there were 214 overdose deaths related to opioids.
To what extent the lawsuit will succeed remains to be seen, of course. The lawsuits filed by the California counties have been indefinitely delayed, while Chicago officials recently revised their lawsuit, although a settlement was reached with Pfizer (PFE) — a relatively minor player in the opioid market — in exchange for providing the city with information about opioid marketing.
Meanwhile, New Hampshire is battling with Purdue Pharma over information it has sought in connection with its own investigation — the company has refused to respond to a subpoena. Last March, Endo reached a deal with New York officials to pay a $200,000 fine and revamp marketing of its Opana ER tablet.
And last December, Kentucky officials settled a pair of long-running lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson and Purdue Pharma. STAT, however, has gone to court to force the state to disclose documents that were sealed as part of the settlement.
As for the latest lawsuit, we asked the companies for comment and will update you accordingly.
Purdue declined to comment.
A Johnson & Johnson spokeswoman wrote us that “we firmly believe the allegations in this litigation are both legally and factually unfounded. Janssen has acted appropriately, responsibly, and in the best interests of patients regarding our opioid pain medications, which are FDA-approved and carry FDA-mandated warnings about the known risks of the medications on every product label.”