Maricopa County files racketeering suit against opioid manufacturers

By: - December 27, 2018 4:40 pm

Maricopa County has joined the ranks of government entities that are taking opioid manufacturers and distributors to court over the epidemic that is raging across the country, claiming in a new racketeering lawsuit that the crisis is the direct result of intentional disinformation and other irresponsible actions by the companies that make and sell the drugs.

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office filed suit in federal court Dec. 21 against Purdue Pharma and more than a dozen other companies, alleging that they caused a nationwide opioid epidemic by producing new drugs, aggressively marketing them, spreading disinformation about their dangers, and colluding to reduce and evade regulations.

In the lawsuit, the county accused the companies of violating state consumer protection laws and federal racketeering laws.

Maricopa County’s 170-page lawsuit says it has been forced to shoulder the cost of increased crime, incarceration, public health problems, social services, an overburdened court system and lost tax revenue. The suit doesn’t specify how much money the county is seeking, and a county spokeswoman said it will be up to the jury to determine the figure. The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors voted to authorize the lawsuit on Dec. 12.

“The opioid epidemic is no accident. On the contrary, it is the foreseeable consequence of Defendants’ reckless promotion and distribution of potent opioids for chronic pain while deliberately downplaying the significant risks of addiction and overdose,” Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery and attorney Ron Kilgard, of the law firm Keller Rohrback, which is serving as the county’s outside counsel, wrote in the complaint.

Maricopa County v Purdue Pharma Complaint (Text)
In bringing the suit, Maricopa County joins a rapidly growing list of states and other government entities that are taking on pharmaceutical companies over the nationwide opioid crisis. State or local governments in at least 23 other states, along with one Native American tribe, have filed suits directly against the companies.

The Arizona Attorney General’s Office filed suit in September against Purdue Pharma, the former maker of the drug OxyContin and one of the companies named as a defendant in Maricopa County’s lawsuit, alleging that it violated a 2007 judgment it entered into with the state over deceptive marketing practices.

We join other counties, cities and states that can no longer tolerate companies who willfully disregard the financial and societal effects their products have on our communities,” county spokesman Fields Moseley said in a written statement.

The recent onslaught of litigation is reminiscent of the wide-ranging legal battle against big tobacco in the 1990s. As a result of that litigation, tobacco companies reached an agreement in 1998 with 46 states, along with several other jurisdictions, which was the largest civil settlement in American legal history.

Maricopa County’s lawsuit includes allegations against numerous companies, including Endo Pharmaceuticals, Johnson and Johnson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health, among others. But it singles out Purdue Pharma, of Stamford, Conn., for the original sin. Purdue Pharma “set the stage for the opioid epidemic” with its powerful OxyContin pill in 1991, which marketed it as a safer opioid that carried less risk of addiction, in part due to its sustained-release technology.

But the claims that OxyContin was less addictive than other prescription opioids wasn’t backed up by any studies or evidence, which the lawsuit claims Purdue was well aware of. In one case, Purdue used a five-sentence letter to the editor that ran in the New England Journal of Medicine to bolster its unverified claim that addiction was rare among patients who were prescribed opioids.

Other companies quickly followed suit, developing their own drugs to get in on the growing market for opioids and using deceptive marketing tactics.

And the sustained-release technology could be easily circumvented, delivering a massive dose at once. The strongest OxyContin pills had 16 times as much oxycodone, the pill’s active narcotic ingredient, as the strongest versions of other opioids on that were on the market previously.

“[T]he commercial success of Defendants’ prescription opioids would not have been possible without a fundamental shift in prescribers’ perception of the risks and benefits of long-term opioid use,” the lawsuit stated

The county alleges that the companies were well aware that massive pill shipments were being diverted to the illegal drug trade, in many cases taking steps to ensure that those shipments evaded law enforcement scrutiny.

Pharmaceutical companies and third-party advocacy organizations they created and funded lobbied for laws and policies that made it harder to crack down on the epidemic, the lawsuit alleged. One of those laws, a 2016 federal law called the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, made it more difficult for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency to halt suspicious shipments of opioids.

The result of the crisis, attorneys wrote, is that opioid prescriptions in the United States tripled from 1991-2011, from 76 million per year to 219 million. In 2016, 189 million opioid pills were dispensed in Maricopa County, “enough to medicate every adult in Maricopa County around the clock for two weeks,” the lawsuit claimed. Between 2012 and 2016, more than 1,500 people died of opioid overdoses in the county.

A spokesman for Purdue Pharma did not respond to a request for comment.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”