Franklin County has joined the legions of government agencies across the country wanting opioid manufacturers and distributors to pay for creating the “worst man-made epidemic in modern medical history.”
A lawsuit filed this week in federal court states that 17 people died from opioid overdoses in the county between 2012 and 2016.
That number nearly tripled from the six deaths reported from 2008 to 2010.
In response to the growing need, Franklin County sheriff’s deputies have started carrying Narcan, a drug used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. That required training for the deputies on how to administer the drug.
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“Franklin County has been working to confront the emergency caused by defendants’ reckless promotion and distribution of prescription opioids,” the lawsuit states. “The county has spent substantial sums in the past and will continue to spend substantial sums in the future to address the epidemic.”
Public health, criminal justice and social welfare services are burdened by the consequences of the crisis, according to the 131-page complaint.
“Even if prescription opioids were entirely banned today or only used for the intended purpose, millions of Americans, including Franklin County residents, would remain addicted to opioids, and overdoses will continue to claim lives,” the suit states.
While the civil action was filed in U.S. District Court’s Eastern District of Washington and cites a violation of the state’s Consumer Protection Act, it links Franklin County with an ongoing sprawling lawsuit in the Northern District of Ohio.
That case consolidates more than 400 complaints by cities, counties and Native American tribes nationwide, The New York Times reported earlier this year.
There’s no indication that Benton County or Kennewick, Pasco and Richland plan to follow suit. Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller said the county commissioners must decide whether to pursue it.
The suits accuse manufacturers, distributors and dispensers of prescription opioids of using misleading marketing to promote the painkillers and of playing down the addictiveness of the drugs, the Times story said.
Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant signed the local lawsuit, though Seattle law firm Keller Rohrback is handling the litigation. They have requested a jury trial.
The defendants include Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Endo Health Solutions, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Amerisourcebergen Drug Corporation and Cardinal Health.
They have 21 days to file a response.
The suit states that in addition to violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, the defendants’ conduct constitutes a public nuisance, negligence and gross negligence and resulted in unjust enrichment at Franklin County’s expense.
Purdue, which makes OxyContin, reportedly has generated between $2 and $3 billion annually in sales alone since 2009.
Opioids have become the most prescribed class of drugs since the mid-1990s, and more than 300,000 Americans have died from an opioid overdose since 2000.
“On any given day, 145 people will die from opioid overdoses in the United States,” the lawsuit claims. “Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death of Americans under age 50.”
Franklin County’s lawyers say the addiction crisis is no accident since the pharmaceutical giants have recklessly promoted and distributed “potent opioids for chronic pain while deliberately downplaying the significant risks.”
In 2006, 77 prescriptions per 100 people were written in the county for painkillers. It has declined slightly but still remains high, the lawyers say, with 70 prescriptions per 100 people issued in 2014.
Franklin County has about 92,000 residents with the majority living in the city of Pasco.
“Each day that defendants continue to evade responsibility for the epidemic they caused, the county must continue allocating substantial resources to address it,” the suit states.
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed his own lawsuit against Purdue Pharma in 2017. A King County judge in April denied the opioid manufacturer’s request to dismiss the state case.