Johnson County and 35 other Iowa counties are suing opioid manufacturers

Image courtesy of the University of Utah

Johnson County, along with 35 other Iowa counties, is suing five major manufacturers of prescription opioids for what the counties claim are deceptive marketing and sales practices that fueled the current opioid crisis.

“The crisis was precipitated by Defendants who, through nefarious and deceptive means and using one of the biggest pharmaceutical marketing campaigns in history, carefully engineered and continue to support a dramatic shift in the culture of prescribing opioids by falsely portraying both the risks of addiction and abuse and the safety and benefits of long-term use,” according to the lawsuit filed in federal court in Des Moines on Jan. 5.

The lawsuit is part of a wave of litigation by cities and counties across the county that target opioid manufacturers. The municipalities are seeking reimbursement for costs associated with coping the opioid crisis, and unspecified other damages.

In November, the Iowa State Association of Counties (ISAC) encouraged members to consider litigation against the opioid manufacturers.

“It’s really the counties that provide a lot of the services that respond to the opioid crisis,” Kristi Harshbarger, ISAC general counsel, told Little Village.

Harshbarger pointed to burdens on county services — from law enforcement to health care, and even the costs associated with an increase in autopsies — as a primary reason for the litigation.

“Because there are direct costs that counties are looking at, it made sense to have them directly involved in the litigation,” Harshbarger said. “But also from a public policy standpoint, it’s important for counties to be leaders in addressing these problem and holding these companies accountable for the alleged fraud that they committed.”

The lawsuit alleges the manufacturers knew “their opioid products were addictive, subject to abuse, and not safe or efficacious for long-term use,” but “[t]he market for short-term pain relief is significantly more limited than the market for long-term chronic pain relief.” To maximize profits, it’s alleged, the companies worked to “create a misperception in the medical community” and “create a phony consensus on the safety and efficacy of using prescription opioids to treat chronic pain.” According to the lawsuit, the companies not only produced misleading medical literature, but also funded organizations that presented themselves as independent, but worked to promote the companies’ agenda of increasing the use of opioids.

In 2007, Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin and one of the companies named in the counties’ lawsuit, pled guilty in federal court to criminal charges that it misled doctors and patients regarding to efficacy and likely consequences of using OxyContin and other prescription opioids. As part of its plea deal, the company agreed to pay more than $600 million in fines

In 2012, the lawsuit states, opioids generated $8 billion in revenue for the drug companies, including $3.1 billion that Purdue Pharma earned from OxyContin sales.

The court filing cites research by the University of Iowa Injury Prevention Research Center (IPRC) to document the impact of opioid abuse in the state. According to a 2017 IPRC report, “While prescription drug overdose deaths and rates of opioid prescribing in Iowa are low compared to other states, rates of prescription opioid overdose deaths have quadrupled in the past 20 years, making Iowa only one of four states with such a dramatic increase.”

Joining Johnson County in the lawsuit are Adair, Adams, Audubon, Benton, Bremer, Buchanan, Buena Vista, Calhoun, Carroll, Cedar, Clay, Clayton, Clinton, Dallas, Delaware, Fayette, Hamilton, Hardin, Humboldt, Lee, Mahaska, Marion, Mitchell, Monroe, Montgomery, O’Brien, Plymouth, Pottawattamie, Sac, Scott, Shelby, Sioux, Taylor and Winneshiek counties. Polk County filed a separate lawsuit on the same day as the other counties. Polk, like the 35 other counties, is being represented by the Wisconsin-based law firm Crueger Dickinson and with the exception of the names of the counties, the filings in both lawsuits are identical.

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Linn County, which had 218 deaths from opioid overdoes between 2008 and 2015, is not part of the lawsuits. According to an op-ed column by Linn County Public Health Director Pramod Dwivedi published in the Corridor Business Journal in August, the county is “working on developing a comprehensive intervention strategy” for opioid abuse.

In addition to Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Johnson and Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals and Endo Health Solutions are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

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