Counties sue Big Pharma over ultra-addictive painkillers and their “campaign of deception”

In the middle of May, the counties of Orange and Santa Clara in California filed a 100 page lawsuit against Big Pharma for “false advertising, unfair business practices and creating a public nuisance.” The LA Times ran a very good article on it. Some highlights:

(1) The lawsuit alleges the drug companies have reaped blockbuster profits by manipulating doctors into believing the benefits of narcotic painkillers outweighed the risks, despite “a wealth of scientific evidence to the contrary.”

(2) The complaint accuses the companies of encouraging patients, including well-insured veterans and the elderly, to ask their doctors for the painkillers to treat common conditions such as headaches, arthritis and back pain.

(3) The widespread prescribing of narcotics has created “a population of addicts” and triggered a resurgence in the use of heroin, which produces a similar high to opiate-based painkillers, but is cheaper, the suit says.

(4) In Orange County, where the lawsuit alleges there is a painkiller-related death every other day, Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said he decided to pursue the case “as a matter of public protection.” The primary goal, Rackauckas said in an interview, is “to stop the lies about what these drugs do.”

The five companies named in the lawsuit are: Actavis, Endo Health Solutions Inc., Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Purdue Pharma, and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries’ Cephalon Inc.

The most egregious offender is Purdue Pharma, the company that created Oxycotin in 1996 and has aggressively (and perhaps recklessly) marketed it ever since. In 2007, Purdue Pharma agreed to pay $635 million to settle charges that it had overstated Oxycotin’s benefits and understated it’s addictive qualities. While the fine may seem large, the Wall Street Journal estimates that annual sales of Oxycotin are about 2.8 billion dollars.  The fine amounted to about 20% of one year’s annual Oxycotin revenue. Clearly, this did not dissuade Purdue Pharma from their negative practices. Some other concerns involving Purdue Pharma:

(1) In 2013, the FDA denied generic versions of Oxycotin. This allowed Purdue Pharma to keep the patent and continue to rake in billions of dollars a year.

(2) Also in 2013, Purdue Pharma announced that they had received FDA approval to sell transdermal buprenorphine. Because of the explosion in opiate addiction over the last dozen or so years, there have been more and more people getting treatment and getting medication-assisted treatment. Buprenorphine (most common trade names are Suboxone or Subutex) is one of the best two medications for opiate addiction. Purdue Pharma is looking to capitalize on this market, which ironically (bitterly), they helped to create. If Purdue Pharma was a black male, the headlines would say that Purdue Pharma robs and kills people.

In the beginning of June, Chicago filed a similar suit against Big Pharma as well. It made headlines in NJ because Johnson & Johnson was one of the companies named. Here is a clip of a TV report about if from June 3rd.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel released a statement regarding the lawsuit:

“For years, big pharma has deceived the public about the true risks and benefits of highly potent and highly addictive painkillers in order to expand their customer base and increase their bottom line…It’s time for these companies to end these irresponsible practices and be held accountable.”

I expect that more counties, cities and perhaps states will follow these examples. Big Pharma is wealthy and employs a number of very smart lawyers. If the battles against the deceptive and negative practices of Big Tobacco provide a template, than this fight may be played out in the courts for  the next 5 to 20 years. It won’t help the person who is addicted or about to get addicted, but it might benefit kids born in 2014.

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