April 3, 2018 | Blog Post

The Opioid Crisis: Holding Pharmaceutical Companies Accountable

By Andrea Stojsavljevic, Advocacy Fellow

At Healthier Colorado, we recognize the gravity and magnitude of the opioid epidemic and its insidious effects on our families, friends, and Coloradans in every corner of the state. We are currently suffering the effects of the opioid epidemic. Our friends and family experience addiction, overdose deaths, and our state must funnel countless amounts of money and resources into fighting this crisis.

We also now know that opioids should have never been so casually prescribed in such high volumes, and that the public and doctors were misled on how opioids should be used and prescribed. An obsession over profits for pharmaceutical companies brought us the deceitful marketing campaigns that have led us to this critical point as a state.

That’s why, this fall, we will call upon the newly appointed Attorney General to take action and hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for this preventable epidemic. The Attorney General must take charge on the opportunity to sue pharmaceutical companies responsible for the opioid epidemic so that we can prevent another public health crisis like this in the future and to ensure the health and protection of all Coloradans.  

Read on for more about how we got here and what we can do to fight the opioid crisis in our state.

Scope of the Opioid Epidemic in Colorado

Over the past two decades, the public health crisis caused by the opioid epidemic has shown up in a variety of detrimental ways in Colorado. To start, there is evidence that doctors were writing massive amounts of opioid prescriptions as there were nearly 20 million opioid prescriptions dispensed to Coloradans from 2013 to 2017 alone,1 with some of those prescriptions being written for an alarming period of 30+days.2 The crisis has also contributed to a tripling in the amount of opioid-related deaths from 87 in 2000 to 329 in 2015.3

Colorado has also witnessed these opioids create an addiction epidemic, which is how many persons with addiction end up turning to heroin as a more-available alternative. According to the Denver Metro Treatment Client Survey, 70% of respondents reported that prescription painkillers played a role in their decision to use heroin.4  We can see this when we look at the fact that from 2006 to 2015, Colorado experienced a 93% increase in heroin-related overdose deaths.5

Colorado has taken numerous measures to try to keep pace with the opioid epidemic as it’s devastated our communities. The state has pushed for legislation on prescription limits, more money for treatment and prevention programs, better-equipped EMS response teams, and much more.6  

Pharmaceutical Companies’ Culpability

Purdue Pharma began attempting to shift how physicians and the public perceived opioids starting in the 1990s.7 For one, Purdue funded medical professionals to speak on how doctors should not fear the use of opioids, placed statements in Medical journals downplaying opioids’ potential for abuse, and were able to get OxyContin approved by the FDA without any clinical trials being conducted about how addictive or prone to abuse the drug may be.8 Purdue also launched one of the largest pharmaceutical marketing campaigns in history, marketing OxyContin as a drug that could be used safely and for long-term periods for a variety of health and pain issues. They also specifically targeted doctors who were ignorant to the actual effects of opioids.9

These kinds of fraudulent and deceptive marketing campaigns have led to Purdue being sued thousands of times over OxyContin.8 One such lawsuit in 2003 was brought by New York trial lawyer Paul Hanley, who declared, “This company had set out to perpetrate a fraud on the entire medical community. These pronouncements about how safe the drug was emanated from the marketing department, not the scientific department. It was pretty shocking. They just made this stuff up.” Purdue settled this particular case, but in 2007 the company pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges of misbranding and acknowledged they had marketed OxyContin with the intent to defraud or mislead. Three Purdue executive also pleaded guilty to criminal charges in that case.10

Purdue led the charge, but many other pharmaceutical companies have followed suit. The founder of Insys Therapeutics, John M. Kapoor, was arrested in October of 2017 and charged with leading a conspiracy to use bribes and fraud for the illegal distribution of Fentanyl spray. It’s alleged that Kapoor paid doctors in exchange for prescribing the spray, which contains the powerful and highly addictive opioid fentanyl.11 Other pharmaceutical companies like Teva, Janssen, Johnson and Johnson, McKesson, and many more are now facing multiple lawsuits claiming they have all used deceptive marketing techniques to sell their drugs.12

Colorado Attorney General’s Opportunity

Given the scope of the opioid epidemic and knowledge of pharmaceutical culpability, we are imploring the Attorney General to follow the actions that other states and counties have already taken to sue these pharmaceutical companies.

Multiple cities, counties, and states across the country are experiencing the same effects of the opioid epidemic in their communities, and suing pharmaceutical companies for their culpability. For one, Ohio’s Attorney General Mike DeWine is suing five drug manufacturers, accusing them of engaging in deceptive long-term marketing campaigns to exaggerate the benefits, while downplaying the addiction risks of opioids.13 DeWine alleges that these companies, “helped unleash a health care crisis that has had far-reaching financial, social and deadly consequences in the State of Ohio.”14

Similar lawsuits that seek damages for the costs states have incurred while responding to the opioid epidemic are being brought forward by Attorneys General in New Hampshire, Mississippi, New Mexico, and more.15 A prime example is in Oklahoma, where Attorney General Mike Hunter is suing more than a dozen pharmaceutical companies for fraudulent marketing claims that gravely understated the addictive risks of opioids while exaggerating their benefits.16 Hunter claimed, “By waging a fraudulent, decades-long marketing campaign to profit from the suffering of thousands of Oklahomans, these companies have made in excess of $10 billion a year, while creating a generation of Oklahomans who have become addicts, convicts or have met their deaths from opioid overdoses.”

Right here in Colorado, Huerfano County sued a handful of pharmaceutical companies, claiming that they, as a county, must protect the public from companies that are engaging in false advertising. These suits seek damages for the tax dollars the county has already spent on addiction treatment, emergency response, and any other future costs they’ll incur as a result of the addiction crisis in their county.17 DEA investigators found that a single pharmaceutical company, McKesson, was supplying so many pills to Huerfano County that every one of its 6,400 residents could have a monthly dose of 30 to 60 tablets.18

Huerfano County is representative of the opioid epidemic and the adverse public health effects it has caused across the state of Colorado. The Colorado Attorney General has the opportunity to make an impact for all Coloradans and take a stand against pharmaceutical companies that have recklessly and deceptively produced a product that has led to this public health crisis.

The Colorado Attorney General has a clear path to join other states across the country — and at least one county in its own state — to ensure that all Coloradans are protected from reckless marketing and to hold the pharmaceutical companies accountable, especially as these companies have only benefited from this crisis. The Attorney General must take a stand and set the precedent that we will not allow pharmaceutical companies to conduct business the way they have with opioids, especially at the expense of Coloradans’ lives. We trust that the Attorney General will act in the best interest of Colorado, and therefore will initiate a lawsuit that will protect all Coloradans in the future.  

Works Cited

1 Aspen Ridge North (September 2017). Prescription Drug Abuse Statistics in Colorado. Available at: https://www.aspenridgenorth.com/blog/prescription-drug-abuse-statistics-colorado/
2 Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (March 2017). Opioid Use In Colorado: Colorado Medicaid Addresses Addiction. Available at: https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/sites/default/files/Opioid%20Use%20in%20Colorado%20-%20March%202017.pdf
3 Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. (November 2016). Examining Opioid and Heroin Related Overdose in Colorado. Available at: https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/sites/default/files/HW-No-100-Colorado-Opioid-and-Heroin-Overdose.pdf
4 Prevention Public Health Treatment Recovery Law Enforcement. (April 2017). Heroin in Colorado: Preliminary Assessment. Available at: https://leg.colorado.gov/sites/default/files/heroin_in_colorado_final_4.13.17.pdf
5 Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. (July 2017). Scope of the Problem: Opioid and Other Substance Use Disorders. Available at: http://leg.colorado.gov/sites/default/files/cdphe_scope_of_the_problem_7.10.17.pdf
6 Frank, Josh. The Denver Post (October 2017) For Colorado’s opioid crisis, lawmakers endorse prescription limits and possibility of safe-injection sites. Available at: https://www.denverpost.com/2017/10/31/colorado-opioid-legislation/
7 Lopez, German. Vox (January 2018). The Growing Number of Lawsuits Against Opioid Companies, Explained. Available at: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/6/7/15724054/opioid-companies-epidemic-lawsuits
8 Radden Keefe, Patrick. The New Yorker (October 2017). The Family That Built an Empire of Pain. Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/30/the-family-that-built-an-empire-of-pain
9 Mariani, Mike. Pacific Standard (March 2015). How the American Opiate Epidemic Was Started by One Pharmaceutical Company. Available at: http://theweek.com/articles/541564/how-american-opiate-epidemic-started-by-pharmaceutical-company
10 Meier, Barry. The New York Times (May 2007). In Guilty Plea, OxyContin Maker to Pay $600 Million. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/10/business/11drug-web.html
11 McFadden, Cynthia. NBC News (October 2017). Billionaire Charged With Bribing Doctors to Prescribe Opioids. Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/americas-heroin-epidemic/billionaire-charged-bribing-doctors-prescribe-opioids-n814686
12 Semuels, Alana. The Atlantic (June 2017). Are Pharmaceutical Companies to Blame for The Opioid Epidemic? Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/06/lawsuit-pharmaceutical-companies-opioids/529020/
13 State of Ohio ex rel Mike DeWine v. Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries..et al. Ross County Common Pleas Court. May 31 2017. Available at: http://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/Files/Briefing-Room/News-Releases/Consumer-Protection/2017-05-31-Final-Complaint-with-Sig-Page.aspx
14 Jacobo, Julia. ABC News (May 2017). Ohio attorney general sues 5 pharmaceutical companies over opioid epidemic. Available at: http://abcnews.go.com/US/ohio-attorney-general-sues-pharmaceutical-companies-opioid-epidemic/story?id=47750198
15 Quinn, Mattie. Governing: The States and Localities. (November 2017). The Opioid Files: More Than 100 States and Cities Are Suing Drug Companies. Available at: http://www.governing.com/topics/health-human-services/gov-opioid-lawsuits-companies-states-cities.html
16 Ellis, Randy. The Oklahoman (June 2017). Oklahoma Attorney General Sues Pharmaceutical Companies. Available at: http://newsok.com/article/5554776
17 Morfitt, Karen. CBS Denver 4. (January 2018). Southern Colorado County Sues More Than A Dozen Pharmaceutical Companies. Available at: http://denver.cbslocal.com/2018/01/29/huerfano-sues-pharmaceutical-companies/
18 Mitchell, Kirk. The Denver Post. (January 2018). Tiny Colorado county sues giant opioid makers and distributors for millions. Available at: https://www.denverpost.com/2018/01/29/tiny-colorado-county-sues-giant-opioid-makers-millions/

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