County joins lawsuit filed against drug manufacturers

By: Julie Snyder | Mount Clemens - Clinton - Harrison Journal | Published December 20, 2017

 Macomb County Medical Examiner Daniel Spitz speaks to reporters during a Dec. 19 press conference announcing a lawsuit filed by nine Michigan communities, including Macomb County, against multiple pharmaceutical companies blamed for the current opioid epidemic.

Macomb County Medical Examiner Daniel Spitz speaks to reporters during a Dec. 19 press conference announcing a lawsuit filed by nine Michigan communities, including Macomb County, against multiple pharmaceutical companies blamed for the current opioid epidemic.

Photo by Julie Snyder

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MOUNT CLEMENS — Macomb County is one of nine Michigan communities involved in a federal lawsuit targeting multiple drugmakers, distributors and retailers for their role in the opioid epidemic across the country.

During a Dec. 19 press conference at the Macomb County Medical Examiner’s Office, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel was joined by legal representatives Mark Bernstein, Paul Pennock and Tim Smith; Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan; and Macomb County Medical Examiner Daniel Spitz to discuss the lawsuit and why they’re doing something about the drug problem now.

Hackel said that while many people are prescribed painkillers like codeine, hydrocodone and oxycodone legitimately, too often these medications become overprescribed, often for years.

“The most common cause of death is becoming associated with opioid addiction,” Hackel said. “There needs to be some kind of accountability.”

The lawsuit names large pharmaceutical companies including Purdue, Cephalon, Teva, Endo and Janssen, and retailers including CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid and Costco, stating that these retailers are responsible for their role in the record level of opioid drug use, deaths, and the subsequent cost to local and county governments.

The suit alleges “racketeering, aggressive overpromotion, fraudulent claims regarding the safety of prescription opioids, and reckless production and distribution of these highly addictive, dangerous substances in the name of soaring profits, amounting to billions of dollars.”

The lawsuit, which was filed Dec. 18 in the U.S. District Court in Detroit, is requesting that the court compel the defendants to remedy the exorbitant costs to taxpayers for the increased burdens to their citizens and communities.

“It’s not that we want to profit from litigation — we want to stop it through litigation,” Hackel said.

Bernstein, from the Sam Bernstein Law Firm, is representing the nine communities on a contingency basis along with attorneys from Weitz & Luxenberg, out of New York City.

He said what is happening is similar to the behavior of tobacco companies many years ago, which downplayed just how dangerous and addictive nicotine and smoking cigarettes are.

“They’re telling the doctors that opioids are not addictive or minimally addictive,” said Bernstein. “There are two addictions: the addiction of the patients, but also the addiction to profits from the drug companies.”

In addition to the loss of life, counties and cities across Michigan have sustained significant costs for providing additional medical care, rehabilitation and treatment for those suffering addiction, dependence, overdose and death; increased law enforcement and public safety personnel; and treatment, care or foster placement for minors suffering from parental addictions.

According to the lawsuit, the Weighted National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimates that in 2016, 91.8 million people — more than one-third the population of civilian, noninstitutionalized U.S. adults — used prescription opioids.

“For many of those people, opioid use will prove fatal. Since 1999, 200,000 Americans have died as a result of overdoses from OxyContin and other prescription opioids,” the lawsuit reads.

It goes on to state that, nationwide, from 1997 to 2002, there were 73 percent, 226 percent and 402 percent increases in morphine, fentanyl and oxycodone prescribing, respectively. During that same period, hospital emergency department mentions for morphine, fentanyl and oxycodone increased by 113, 641 and 346 percent, respectively.

“Mortality rates from opioid overdose have climbed dramatically. Since 1999, overdose deaths due to prescription opioids have continued to rise. And in 2002, unintentional overdose deaths from prescription opioids surpassed those from heroin and cocaine nationwide. The crisis in opioid overdose deaths has reached epidemic proportions in the United States (33,091 in 2015), and currently exceeds all other drug-related deaths or traffic fatalities,” the lawsuit states.

This year, 175 Americans have died every day as a result of the opioid epidemic, the lawsuit states. Since the 2000s, 75 percent of opioid abusers have begun their addiction through prescription opioids, according to the lawsuit.

In Macomb County, Hackel said opioid-related deaths rose 134 percent from 2015 to 2016.

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