(Bloomberg) — State and local leaders fighting a worsening opioid-abuse epidemic are studying tactics used in the tobacco lawsuits of the 1990s, as they try to claw back billions from the companies who make and sell the powerful painkillers.
More than 20 U.S. states, counties and cities have sued firms including Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma Inc., and McKesson Corp. in the past year, claiming they fueled a public-health crisis with misleading marketing and aggressive distribution of opioids. Attorneys general in Alaska and Tennessee are also considering lawsuits as their health and legal budgets are stretched to a breaking point by the surge in addictions, overdoses and crime.
It’s a strategy cigarette manufacturers will recognize: Two decades ago, they faced similar allegations as states and local governments sued, saying they’d shouldered huge costs for treating diseases blamed on tobacco.
Last month, Ohio sued five drugmakers, alleging they made false and deceptive statements about the risks and benefits of prescription opioids. And Nassau County, New York, this week sued drugmakers, distributors and doctors, saying it has had to increase spending on health care and law enforcement as a result of the epidemic.
“The costs of this opioid crisis are more severe for governmental entities than those posed by tobacco,” said Steve Berman, a plaintiffs’ lawyer aiding the states, who helped negotiate the $246 billion tobacco settlement in 1998. “States and cities are getting slammed with opioid-dependence costs that are a much more immediate threat than long-term illnesses tied to tobacco.”
It’s difficult to say how successful such legal action will be. The companies who make and distribute opioids defend the drugs’ safety and say they work actively to keep them from being abused.
Janssen, the J&J unit that sells opioids, has acted “appropriately, responsibly and in the best interests of patients,” said Jessica Castles Smith, a spokeswoman. Purdue Pharma said it’s concerned about the crisis and is working toward solutions. McKesson said that it doesn’t comment on pending litigation. The Healthcare Distribution Alliance — a trade group that includes McKesson — called attempts to target the industry “misguided and unsupported by the facts.”
There were 33,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2015, up from 19,000 in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Costs related to opioid abuse, including spending on treatment and policing as well as lost economic output, amount to tens of billions of dollars per year, according to a study by Wolters Kluwer Health in the journal Medical Care last year.
In Lorain, Ohio, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Cleveland, Mayor Chase Ritenauer says that the epidemic is wearing out his fleet of police cars. A 25% jump in overdose-response calls is putting so much strain on the department’s Ford Explorers and Tauruses that some are breaking down.
“We had to have one towed after it just shut down during a call,” he said.
Ritenauer says he may have to put off replacing the roof on the police headquarters or fixing the jail’s elevator to come up with enough money to buy new cruisers.
“All these unexpected costs are crashing down on cities and leaving them scrambling to shift money around to keep things going,” said Hunter Shkolnik, a plaintiff’s lawyer who sued pharma makers and sellers on the city of Lorain’s behalf.
Alaska Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth has asked law firms involved in the tobacco battle to pitch a possible opioid suit after Governor Bill Walker declared a state of disaster in February and ordered statewide distribution of naloxone, a drug that can reverse overdoses. There were at least 95 opioid-overdoses deaths in Alaska last year, up from 86 in 2015, and a cluster of nine deaths linked to fentanyl in Anchorage this year, said Jay Butler, the state’s chief medical officer.