On Wednesday, the state of Ohio filed a lawsuit against five major drug companies for their role in the state's opioid addiction epidemic.
The state alleges that those named in the suit—Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceutical, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries subsidiary Cephalon, Allergan, Endo Health Services—borrowed "a page from Big Tobacco's playbook" in downplaying the risks of their products, which "helped unleash a health care crisis" in the state.
The Buckeye State's not the only state or local government suing Big Pharma: Two California counties, the city of Chicago, four counties in New York, and the state of Mississippi all have lawsuits against drug companies regarding their painkiller marketing practices, while several counties in West Virginia have filed lawsuits against drug wholesalers for failing to report suspiciously large orders of opioids. But Ohio's lawsuit, filed by Attorney General Mark DeWine, is the one of the biggest to date.
Reminder: Opioid painkillers like OxyContin and Percocet are crazy-addictive. So much so that, historically, they were strictly used short-term to treat acute pain or for palliative (end-of-life) care. But, according to the lawsuit, by the late 1990s, each of the five defendants began to market long-term use of opioids to treat chronic pain by downplaying their addictiveness and exaggerating their effectiveness. Basically, they've been accused of persuading doctors and patients to believe, without any "good evidence," that opioids weren't unsafe for long-term use and were the best treatment for chronic pain.
If you're thinking: Wait, do drug companies really have that much clout? In short: Abso-fucking-lutely. Prescribing doctors and other healthcare providers rely on these drug companies' statements when making treatment decisions, believing their marketing claims are backed by science and medical evidence. Which is why, in an interview with NPR, DeWine said he believes much of the fault rests on these companies' actions.
"There was a concerted effort for an extended number of years to really pound this into the heads of doctors," DeWine told NPR. "And when you're told something time and time and time again and there's a lot of advertising [money] that is being spent...it takes a while to turn that around." Last year, 2.3 million Ohio residents were prescribed opioid painkillers, nearly a fifth of the state's population, DeWine said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3,310 Ohio residents died from overdoses in 2015—up 21.5 percent from 2014—meaning the state had the 4th highest rate of overdose death in the US, behind only West Virginia, New Hampshire, and Kentucky. And according to early numbers from some counties, overdose deaths increased by at least 30 percent in 2016; the Columbus Dispatch put the total at 4,169. While opioids are still largely to blame in Ohio—they caused 85 percent of all overdose deaths in 2015—people are also overdosing on illicit drugs like heroin and fentanyl. Because prescription opioids are so expensive, many resort to cheaper drugs like heroin for a similar high.
The state is asking that the manufacturers own up to any allegations of wrongdoing and stop falsely promoting opioids, and is also seeking damages for the millions it has spent on the crisis so far, as well as compensation for Ohio residents who paid for opioids to treat chronic pain.
Only a few companies have responded to the allegations so far: A spokeswoman for Janssen called the lawsuit "legally and factually unfounded," and went on to say that the company "acted appropriately, responsibly, and in the best interests of patients regarding our opioid medications," in a statement to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Purdue Pharma also issued a statement to The Plain Dealer, noting their involvement in combating the opioid crisis by developing abuse-deterrent technology, advocating for prescription drug monitoring programs, and supporting access to the opioid overdose treatment Naloxone. The other three manufacturers have yet to comment.