Suburban counties sue opioid drug makers over overdose deaths
Calling doctors, pharmacists and patients victims of "a coordinated, sophisticated and highly deceptive marketing campaign," prosecutors from five suburban counties filed lawsuits Thursday naming drug companies as the source of thousands of opioid overdose deaths in Illinois.
The lawsuits seek an unspecified amount of damages. However, the state's attorneys agreed the financial cost to local taxpayers for policing, preventive programs and the actual deaths is in the millions of dollars.
The nearly identical lawsuits also seek a court order that would prohibit drug manufacturers from continuing what the attorneys described as 20 years of "unfair and deceptive acts and practices."
DuPage County State's Attorney Bob Berlin said the 16 companies and individuals named in the suit knew long-term use of their prescription painkillers led to addiction but hid the risks in the name of making billions of dollars in profits.
The defendants include the makers and marketers of well-known drugs such as OxyContin and Percocet. The companies include Purdue Pharma L.P., Abbott Laboratories, Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc., Cephalon Inc., Johnson & Johnson, Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., Endo Health Solutions Inc., and several related companies.
"They created an epidemic of addiction," Berlin said. "It has severely impacted public health on every geographic and demographic level."
Berlin and other county officials said overdose deaths would decrease in Illinois if the lawsuits are successful. Those deaths total 11,000 people since 2008, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. DuPage is at 81 opioid overdose deaths in 2017.
Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim said his county has more than 70 overdose deaths this year. That number would be larger if not for prevention efforts.
Nerheim said first responders have used 206 doses of naloxone to reverse overdose deaths in the field.
Lake County also has a program that's received more than 50,000 text messages from area youths seeking addiction treatment. The county has collected more than 13,000 pounds of unused medication and placed more than 300 people in treatment through a drug court diversion program.
"In spite of all those efforts, this epidemic continues to grow," Nerheim said. "The source of this crisis is not on street corners; it's in boardrooms."
Kane County led the way on the lawsuits. Officials there announced intentions to sue the drug companies in October. That decision came only after some skepticism by Kane County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen.
In August, Lauzen expressed concern that litigation attorneys might be trying to capitalize on widespread desperation to solve the opioid epidemic with lawsuits that would enrich them but not the actual victims of addiction.
Lauzen signaled a change in his thinking Thursday.
"I value the business community and strongly believe government should stay out of the way of business progress," Lauzen said. "But when a company or companies conspire to create marketing proven to encourage addiction, increase crime, add hundreds of millions (of dollars) to our tax burden and destroy young lives, it's government's duty and responsibility to take action."
Local governments may face obstacles from state officials who don't agree with pointing the finger at those businesses.
Don Kauerauf, assistant director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, told reporters this month the problem doesn't have a single source.
"As much as we try to place the blame on any one industry, say the pharmaceutical companies are drivers, you can't do that," Kauerauf said. "You can't blame all of one sector. There's a lot of factors."
He pointed to insurance companies as another factor. Many insurers cover the costs of pain medication but reject alternative, but more costly options, such as physical therapy, he said.
State health department stats show opioid overdoses killed 1,888 people in 2016 -- more than homicides or car accidents. Illinois' opioid death toll is up 57 percent from 2014. Overdoses are now the leading cause of death for people younger than 50 in Illinois.