City sues OxyContin maker: Could it help curb opioid crisis?

Some experts consider the strategy a long-shot, but others contend it might be feasible, given the facts of the case.

Toby Talbot/AP/File
OxyContin pills, which are made by Purdue Pharma, are pictured in 2013 arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt.

As local leaders across the United States look for ways to halt and reverse the ill effects of an opioid crisis that, for many, began with a prescription for legal painkillers, a city of about 100,000 residents in the Pacific Northwest is trying out a somewhat novel approach: sue the drugmaker.

City officials in Everett, Wash., a city about 25 miles north of Seattle, filed a lawsuit in state court Thursday against Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. The city argues that Purdue should be compelled to cover the costs incurred to provide local drug-related services because the company allegedly failed to take sufficient steps to keep its product from entering the black market. Some experts consider the strategy a long-shot, but others contend it might be feasible, given the facts of the case.

"As a direct result of Purdue's misconduct, huge quantities of OxyContin were disseminated from Purdue to drug rings, pill mills, and other dealers and into the black market within Everett," the city's lawsuit states. "The resulting drug abuse, addiction, and crime caused by Purdue have imposed, and will continue to impose, sizeable costs on Everett, both social and economic."

Taxpayer costs affected by the crisis include emergency medical services, drug treatment programs, police and prosecutorial work, jails and prisons, and other expenditures, including nearly every city department, the lawsuit states. 

"Our systems have been overwhelmed by this crisis, and our community lacks the capacity to respond to and treat the individuals who are suffering from addiction in Everett," public health and safety director Hil Kaman said in a statement. "Purdue must take responsibility for the devastating consequences of their negligence."

Purdue, however, contends that it has already been doing its part to combat problems associated with misuse of its product.

"We share public officials' concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions," Purdue spokesman Bob Josephson told The Christian Science Monitor in an email Sunday. He noted that OxyContin accounts for only a small share, 2 percent, of all pain-related opioid prescriptions, and he defended the company's record as "an industry leader in abuse deterrence."

Everett officials opted to file suit against the company following an investigation last year by the Los Angeles Times, which revealed that Purdue had failed to report evidence to law enforcement that its product was being bought and sold illegally. The company monitored a drug ring in Los Angeles that then supplied OxyContin to drug dealers in Everett, fueling the city's drug-related problems, the newspaper reported:

The glut of OxyContin from California in the late 2000s created a new breed of addicts in Everett and the surrounding area. Those drawn to the pills included young people and professionals who saw the painkiller as more fashionable and less dangerous than street drugs.

Many became addicted and lost their homes, jobs and families. After Purdue reformulated OxyContin in 2010 to make it harder to abuse, addicts moved en masse to heroin, which has a similar effect.

Heroin remains an enormous problem in the region, with more than 40 residents fatally overdosing each year and government resources severely taxed.

Purdue responded to the report by saying it "wildly distorts the role that Purdue ... plays in policing the pharmaceutical supply chain." But within days of the story's publication, Everett officials began mulling the possibility of a lawsuit against the company. After months of deliberation, they decided to move forward.

"We are going to go at them, and we are going to go at them hard," Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson told The Daily Herald last week.

Local leaders are pursuing a number of efforts to combat the crisis. Law enforcement officers have teamed up with social workers in order to better provide treatment and housing, and jail staff has been helping to enroll inmates in Washington State's Medicaid program, making it easier for them to take part in medical services upon their release, as the local paper reported. There's also a 70-unit housing project in the works for the city's homeless.

All of those problem-solving initiatives are expensive, which is why Everett officials hope a judge will compel the company to help foot the bill. While experts remain split over whether the first-of-its-kind lawsuit stands a chance, it is worth noting that Everett officials are not the first governing body to go after Purdue Pharma.

In 2007, three current and former Purdue executives pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges that they misled authorities, doctors, and the public about the addictiveness of OxyContin, as The New York Times reported. They were ordered to pay $600 million in fines and other costs – one of the largest financial penalties of its kind.

Also that year, Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna announced a settlement to end state-level litigation regarding Purdue's marketing practices, as the Herald reported. The company agreed to pay $19.5 million to two dozen states, including $719,500 to Washington State – without admitting any wrongdoing.

Everett is the first municipality to sue Purdue on the basis of criminal drug sales alone, but other jurisdictions – including two California counties – have sought to recoup costs based on that claim and allegations of inappropriate marketing tactics, as the Los Angeles Times reported. And after the Times's investigation last year, the New Hampshire attorney general issued a subpoena for Purdue records that the company has refused to turn over.

Some experts have said it is unlikely that Everett's lawsuit will succeed.

"These theories have been tried with other industries that sell consumer goods and courts with rare exceptions have decided it is too much of a stretch," Lars Noah, who teaches pharmaceutical regulation and public health law, told the Los Angeles Times. The case could aptly be described as "more of a publicity stunt," Professor Noah added.

But others contend that the city might have a better shot than, say, plaintiffs who try to hold gun manufacturers accountable for acts of violence committed with their products. University of Kentucky law professor Richard Ausness said evidence in gun-related lawsuits have often been thin, but that may not be the case in Everett.

This report includes material from Reuters.

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