Opioid abuse has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. According to the Department of Health & Human Services, 12.5 million people misused prescription opioids and 33,091 Americans died from opioid overdose in 2015 alone. These medications provide important pain relief for many. However, over the years, drug companies inflated the effectiveness of delayed-release medications like OxyContin and downplayed their addictive properties, creating conditions ripe for abuse. We are investigating cases involving opioid-related deaths and overdose, or symptoms of overdose requiring hospitalization.
In addition to individual cases of serious injury and death related to opioid abuse, Beasley Allen is representing multiple local governments in Alabama against both manufacturers and distributors of opioids for increased costs faced by local governments related to the opioid epidemic. Providing city and county resources to battle the opioid crisis causes local governments to sustain economic damages and ongoing significant financial burdens.
These lawsuits allege the crisis was created by the pharmaceutical industry, which instead of investigating suspicious orders of prescription opiates, turned a blind eye in favor of making a profit. They intentionally misled doctors and the public about the risks of these dangerous drugs, and municipal governments are left struggling to cope with the consequences.
What are Opioids
Opioids are a class of painkillers that include the illegal drug heroin, as well as legally prescribed drugs such as:
- oxycodone (OxyContin),
- hydrocodone (Vicodin),
These drugs interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the body and brain to elevate pain. These medications are often prescribed following surgery or injury, or for health conditions like cancer.
Opioids are generally safe when taken short-term and as prescribed by a doctor. But because they produce a sense of euphoria, they are often misused. Regular use, even as prescribed by a doctor, can lead to dependence. Some users can experience withdrawal symptoms when trying to get off the drugs.
In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the acceptance and use of these powerful painkillers for the treatment of chronic, non-cancer pain, such as back pain or osteoarthritis, despite serious risks and the lack of evidence regarding their long-term effectiveness.
Opioid side effects include sensitivity to pain, nausea and vomiting, sleepiness and dizziness, confusion, depression, low levels of testosterone, constipation, sweating, as well as an increased risk of opioid addiction, opioid abuse, opioid overdose and death.
The Opioid Epidemic
The opioid crisis has reach epidemic proportions in the U.S. with the number of opioid prescriptions nearly quadrupling in recent years. In 2015, 92 million U.S. adults – or about 38 percent of the population – were legitimately prescribed these painkillers, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. About 11.5 million people misused these powerful painkillers, and another 1.9 million reported full-fledged opioid addiction. There is no demographic that has not been affected by these dangerous drugs. This crisis destroys lives regardless of age, race, wealth or location.
The rate of opioid overdose deaths has increased in step with the growing number of prescriptions, leading to one of the worst drug crises in American history. Opioid overdoses killed more than 33,000 people in 2015 alone. That’s more than guns, car crashes, and HIV/AIDS ever killed in one year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Opioids are also are being blamed on a drop of life expectancy in the U.S. for the second year in a row – the first time there has been a two-year drop in U.S. life expectancy since the early 1960s.
The economic toll of prescription opioid misuse in the U.S. is just as dire, according to the CDC, totaling about $78.5 billion a year, including the costs of health care, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement.
In 2017, President Trump declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency, which allows the quick hiring of personnel, expanded access to telemedicine services, and flexibility in use of grant money to tackle the epidemic. The declaration falls short of a national emergency under the Stafford Act, which would have allowed the use of money from the federal Disaster Relief Fund to fight the crisis.
Opioid Epidemic: Who is to Blame?
The opioid epidemic has grown substantially in the past decade, fueled by drug companies that flooded the health care system with these highly addictive drugs with marketing that misled the public about their safety and effectiveness. They pushed doctors to adopt more liberal prescribing practice without disclosing how dangerous the drugs are. Some opioid manufacturers paid kickbacks to doctors and promoted off-label uses for these powerful painkillers in order to increase profits. As a result, America became the world’s leader in opioid prescriptions.
It didn’t take long for illicit drug traffickers to escalate the opioid crisis, bringing into the country heroin and illegally produced opioids, including a particularly deadly form of synthetic fentanyl.
But the people are fighting back. Dozens of cities, counties and states across the nation have filed similar lawsuits. Beasley Allen is representing multiple local governments in Alabama against both manufacturers and distributors of opioids to hold them responsible for the increased costs related to the opioid crisis.
In December 2017, the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation ruled that the growing number of opioid lawsuits filed by local governments across the country blaming drug companies and distributors for contributing to the national opioid epidemic would be centralized in a multidistrict litigation (MDL) in the Northern District Court of Ohio under U.S. District Judge Aaron Polster. Since then, the MDL has grown to about 180 lawsuits, and that number is expected to grow even larger in the months to come as new plaintiffs and defendants are added.
Opioid manufacturers named in these lawsuits include Purdue Pharma LP, Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc., Johnson & Johnson, Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc., Allergan Inc., and Mallinckrodt LLC. Distributors targeted include Cardinal Health Inc., Amerisource Bergen Corp., and McKesson Corp, as well as units of CVVS Health Corp., and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Local governments are accusing the drug makers of overstating the benefits of opioids while downplaying the risks. Distributors are blamed for failing to monitor and report suspicious drug orders to authorities.