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Wayne, Oakland counties target opioid drug makers in lawsuit

Michigan Radio
Wayne County Executive Warren C. Evans and Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson announcing a joint lawsuit against drug manufacturers and distributors alleging deceptive marketing and sales.

Oakland and Wayne County Executives have filed suit in federal court against 13 opioid drug manufacturers and distributors.

They claim the drug makers' deceptive marketing campaigns over many years contributed heavily to the current opioid addiction crisis.

In 2016, there were 817 opioid-related deaths in Wayne County, a 61 percent increase over the previous year. In Oakland County, opioid-related deaths have risen from 9 in 2009 to 33 in 2015. 

The counties are seeking compensation for their expenses related to the opioid crisis, including costs for law enforcement, courts, jails, emergency medical care, public works, and substance abuse treatment. 

The lawsuit alleges that drug makers and distributors knowingly deceived doctors and the public that their drugs were safe for treatment of chronic pain and minimized their addictive potential. Meanwhile, the drug companies have made billions in profits from prescription opioid drugs. A report published in Fortune Magazine estimated that the pharmaceutical industry made $11 billion in revenue from opioid sales alone in 2011. 

"There has been dramatic increases in opiate prescriptions for common chronic pain problems, which has dramatically increased the scale of prescriptions, the number of addiction problems, and all of the other horrors that the opiate crisis has created," said Powell Miller, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the suit. 

The companies named in the suit are Purdue Pharma, Cephalon, Endo International, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc., Insys Therapeutics Inc., AmerisourceBergen Corporation, Cardinal Health, McKesson Corporation, Mallinckrodt PLC, and Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals.

The court filing details many complaints against drug manufacturers. For example, Purdue markets a number of opioid drugs including Oxycontin, Dilaudid, and a type of extended-release morphine. According to the lawsuit, Purdue falsely marketed extended-release drugs as safer and more effective than immediate-release drugs and falsely informed physicians that the drug had a low risk of addiction.

The plaintiffs also allege that Purdue funded publications and presentations with false or misleading messages. In 2007, Purdue and three of its executives pled guilty to federal charges of misbranding Oxycontin, acknowledging a deliberate attempt to mislead doctors about the addiction risks. Purdue was ordered to pay $600 million in fines and fees. 

Many similar allegations are made against the other defendants in the case. 

Aelish Baig is an attorney with Robbins, Geller, Rudman and Dowd, LLP, one of the firms representing Wanye and Oakland counties. She says that this lawsuit is unusual in that it is one of the first to target drug distributors and drug manufacturers in the same complaint.

"When you're suing the manufacturers, you're suing the manufacturers for false marketing. When you're suing the distributors, you're suing the distributors for failing to report suspicious sales," said Baig.

The complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

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