Miami Has Had Enough – Is Going After Drug Companies Over Opioid Epidemic
In 1980, researchers from Boston University Medical Center sent a letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine describing a study in which they found that despite widespread use of opioids in hospital settings, these medications rarely led to addiction in people without a history of addiction. The journal headlined the letter, “Addiction Rare in Patients Treated With Narcotics,” which didn’t exactly tell the whole story. Little did anyone know that this headline and the letter would be used in a way that would lead to a major opioid epidemic a decade later, leading to as many American deaths as the Vietnam War.
In the late 1990s, the pharmaceutical industry celebrated the FDA approval of opioids like OxyContin, a powerful opioid painkiller. In an aggressive marketing campaign, drug companies used the researchers’ letter to show the medical community that OxyContin and other opioids weren’t addictive, even though they knew this wasn’t the truth. A prescribing frenzy ensued, as did widespread diversion and prescription abuse. Once it became clear that OxyContin was actually extremely addictive — and quite deadly — its maker, Purdue Pharmaceuticals, was in deep trouble and ultimately paid over $600 million in related fines.
But the damage had been done, and it led to the current opioid addiction crisis. Between 1999 and 2015, opioid overdose deaths more than quadrupled. Today, 115 people lose their lives every single day due to opioid overdose, and the opioid epidemic is only getting worse.
Miami Has Had Enough
Pharmaceutical companies spend $2.5 billion each year lobbying and funding members of Congress in an attempt to influence politicians. In 2016, they contributed more than $20 million to political campaigns which, combined with their powerful lobby, has led to dire inaction in the federal government, which refuses to pass meaningful legislation to curb the opioid epidemic affecting every corner of the country.
Miami is the latest in a long line of counties, cities, and states to take it upon themselves to try to hold pharmaceutical companies responsible for their part in the opioid addiction crisis, which is straining state and local budgets to the breaking point. On April 16, Miami filed a civil lawsuit in Miami-Dade County that alleges deceptive and false marketing practices by a number of pharmaceutical companies and distributors. The list of defendants includes Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals, and Walgreens.
The lawsuit claims that these companies caused a public nuisance through false advertising and by unlawfully supplying opioids in Miami, which led to these companies being enriched at the expense of the city, who picks up the tab for law enforcement and medical expenses related to ER visits, opioid addiction treatment, and naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug. City Manager Emilio Gonzalez said in a press release that the city believes the pharmaceutical companies “knowingly inflicted a great burden on the people of the city of Miami and our nation.”
Lawsuits by the Dozens
More than 250 states, counties and cities have sued pharmaceutical companies, marketers, wholesalers, and distributors in the past few years for misleading the public and the medical community through aggressive marketing and untruthful advertising that tout opioid medications as non-addictive. While most of the litigation by these localities is consolidated into a single case in federal court in Ohio, Miami filed suit in a Florida state court in order to give the city greater power and secure a larger financial settlement.
But drug makers and others in the industry deny the claims and say they’ve been working to help end the opioid addiction crisis. Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, claims that its products account for less than two percent of all opioid prescriptions and point out that they’ve distributed the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines for prescribing opioids, developed opioids with abuse-deterrent properties and worked with law enforcement to ensure naloxone is accessible in the quantities needed.
The goals of the Miami lawsuit and other lawsuits are threefold. First, they want pharmaceutical companies to stop calling opioids “safe” and “non-addictive” in their marketing materials. Secondly, they want the companies to compensate the city for the financial impact related to the opioid epidemic, including those related to law enforcement and medical costs. Lastly, they hope to force pharmaceutical companies to develop and pay for an opioid addiction treatment program that helps people end an addiction to opioids for good.
It’s unknown when the Miami lawsuit will see a courtroom, but the drug industry, law enforcement officials, and city fathers across the country — along with others affected by the opioid epidemic — will be watching it unfold with great interest and high hopes for justice.
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