Law firm suing opiate makers sees shades of tobacco litigation

Suit blames drug companies for deceptive marketing campaign that misrepresented safety of long-term opioid use by patients

By Claude Solnik
BridgeTower Media Newswires
 
LONG ISLAND, NY — The law firm that has filed a case on behalf of Suffolk County against the makers of opium-like pain killers believes the suit could be a model for others, potentially leading to a wave of litigation similar to that over tobacco.

Alton, Ill.-based Simmons Hanly Conroy filed a lawsuit on behalf of Suffolk County against pharmaceutical companies and physicians, alleging fraudulent marketing of prescription opium-like painkillers or opioids in the county.

Although the firm is based in Illinois, much of the work on this and other pharmaceuticals cases comes out of Manhattan, where the lead attorneys on this case are based.

“It is fair and accurate to compare this action by Suffolk County to the landmark tobacco industry litigation of the 1980s that alleged that cigarette manufacturers knew – but did not warn consumers – that smoking caused lung cancer and that cigarettes were addictive,” Paul Hanly, lead counsel for the Suffolk case at Simmons Hanly Conroy, said in a written statement.

Hanly said “opioids are considered an appropriate treatment for certain types of short-term pain and for palliative end-of-life care.”

But he added that “drug companies have manufactured, promoted and marketed opioids as pain relievers by misrepresenting or omitting key information about the appropriate uses, risks and safety of the drugs.”

“The defendants in this case have long known about the addictive qualities and other risks associated with prolonged use of opioids and they must be held accountable for the misrepresentations and the harms to society as a result,” he added.

The complaint filed in the New York State Supreme Court on behalf of Suffolk is seeking relief in compensatory and punitive damages for the millions of dollars the county spends related to abuse of these drugs.

Suffolk is suing Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Cephalon, Johnson & Johnson, Ortho-McNeil Janssen Pharmaceuticals and Endo Pharmaceuticals.

It’s also suing physicians Russell Portenoy, Perry Fine, Scott Fishman and Lynn Webster, who were allegedly instrumental in promoting opioids for sale and distribution nationally and in Suffolk County.

The suit blames the drug companies for deceptive marketing campaign that misrepresent the safety and efficacy of long-term opioid use.

The county says it incurred costs related to opioid addiction and abuse including health care, criminal justice, lost productivity and even certain crimes.

It cites a June 19, 2011, robbery and murders at a Medford  pharmacy by two prescription opioid abusers desperate to obtain the drugs.

Johnson & Johnson has said it believes “the allegations in this litigation are both legally and factually unfounded” and medications carry FDA-approved warnings.

Opioids include a wide number of medications sold under brand names including OxyContin and Percocet derived from or possessing properties similar to opium and heroin, according to the law suit.

The suit charges they are highly addictive and dangerous, which is why the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates them as controlled substances.

More than 40 Americans die from overdoses of opioid pain­killers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and 2 million people abuse or misuse the drugs annually, according to Statnews.com, which covers the pharmaceuticals industry.

The National Institutes of Health also identifies drug companies’ “aggressive marketing” as a major contributor to the nation’s opioid abuse problem, according to the suit.

Suffolk County in 2012, for instance, recorded 214 overdose deaths and 8,271 emergency room visits due to opiate use, while the county’s substance abuse programs treated 18,724 people for opioid abuse.
Between 1996 and 2011, the number of people entering substance abuse programs in Suffolk County increased 1,136 percent.

Paul Hanly and Jayne Conroy, the lead attorneys on this case at Simmons Hanly Conroy, in 2006  successfully resolved litigation against Purdue Pharma and Abbot Laboratories, alleging that 5,000 clients’ addictions to OxyContin was a result of fraudulent marketing campaign that claimed the drug was not as addictive as alternative drugs.

Other suits have been filed in counties in  California and Chicago reached a settlement with Pfizer, regarding marketing practices.

New Hampshire is seeking information from Purdue Pharma over possible litigation and Endo agreed to pay a $200,000 fine and revise marketing for its Opana ER tablets.

Hanley said he believes the Suffolk suit may be a model for others to follow, saying “other jurisdictions across the country may evaluate their own monetary and societal losses due to the opioid epidemic and come to a similar conclusion about the conspiratory and fraudulent actions of drug companies that have fueled this epidemic.”

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