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'A human made crisis': Washington and Seattle sue opioid makers

Oxycodone pills.
Flickr Photo/Be.Futureproof (CC BY 2.0)/

Washington state’s attorney general and the attorney for the city of Seattle have filed separate lawsuits against opioid manufacturers, including OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma.

Both the city and the state claim drug companies have contributed to the ongoing opioid and heroin epidemic.  

Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Thursday Purdue Pharma marketed their drug deceptively to doctors and the public — over-stating effectiveness and down-playing the risk of addiction.

He said this deceptive marketing contributed to excessive prescribing, addiction, and the current opioid crisis.

"Blinded by pursuit of profit — billions and billions of dollars — they ignored what was going on in our communities all across this country for their bottom line. That's not right. It's our job to hold them accountable for that," Ferguson said.

The state lawsuit seeks to make Purdue give up the profits it made in Washington as a result of selling opioids.

According to a statement,

“the lawsuit contends Purdue conducted an uncontrolled experiment on the American public without any reliable clinical evidence that opioids are effective at treating chronic pain. To doctors and patients, Purdue consistently downplayed the risks of addiction from long-term use and deceptively represented opioids as safe for treating long-term chronic pain.”

Ferguson said Purdue repeatedly claimed that opioid addiction occurred in less than 1 percent of patients.

He said that number is not based on a clinical study, but rather “a 1980 letter to the editor in the New England Journal of Medicine. That’s what it’s based on”.

He said there are many examples of false claims by Purdue.

In a statement, Purdue Pharma denied the allegations.

“We are deeply troubled by the opioid crisis and we are dedicated to being part of the solution. As a company grounded in science, we must balance patient access to FDA-approved medicines, while working collaboratively to solve this public health challenge. Although our products account for approximately 2 percent of the total opioid prescriptions, as a company, we’ve distributed the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, developed the first FDA-approved opioid medication with abuse-deterrent properties and partner with law enforcement to ensure access to naloxone. We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.”

The city of Seattle’s lawsuit also names Purdue, along with several other opioid manufacturers, including Teva Pharmaceuticals, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, and Johnson & Johnson.

City attorney Pete Holmes said the city hopes to recoup some of the costs the opioid crisis has caused, including money spent on human services and emergency response.

"Unlike earthquakes and hurricanes, this disaster is a human-made crisis. The lawsuit that I filed today on behalf of the city of Seattle is to hold accountable, first and foremost, those who have caused the harm to this city," Holmes said.

Holmes, whose office has recently seen huge cost-overruns caused by high volumes of litigation, said the city will be represented by an outside law firm for this case. But he noted that Seattle will only pay a fee if they win the suit and recover damages.

Prescriptions and sales of opioids in Washington increased by more than 500 percent between 1997 and 2011, according to a statement from the attorney general’s office.

The statement also notes that a 2014 study found nearly 80 percent of heroin users reported using prescription opioids first.

City attorney Holmes said no one is untouched by the opioid crisis and the two lawsuits are one way to bring more resources into the community to help people recover.

Kirkland resident Rose Dennis has seen the toll of opioid addiction first hand. Dennis’ son was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 12 years old.

Dennis said Thursday that her son spent nine months in a Seattle hospital hooked up to an opiate drip to deal with the pain of his chemotherapy. Dennis said that treatment ended in her son becoming addicted to opioids and progressing to using heroin.

“It was never mentioned to us that one of the side effects of his cancer would be opiate addiction… he left the hospital after nine months cured of cancer but with the disease of addiction,” Dennis said.

Dennis said her son, now 31, has been in and out of treatment multiple times over the years and remains addicted to this day.

She said he’s lived on the streets and they’ve had to kick him out several times because he was stealing from them to support his addiction.

Dennis said this should never have happened to her son, it’s not the life he was supposed to have.  She said she’s concerned that providers felt their treatment with opioids was OK.

Holmes also noted that addiction was a large contributor to the homelessness crisis in Seattle.

Multiple cities and counties across the country have sued opioid manufacturers, including Tacoma and Everett. 

Ferguson said this will not be the only lawsuit the state will file in relation to the opioid epidemic. 

Year started with KUOW: 2015