Drug firms react to Palm Beach County suit, deny causing opioid crisis

Some of the companies being sued by Palm Beach County have acknowledged the devastation of the opioids epidemic, but they stopped short of admitting any role in creating or worsening it.

“We are deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis, and we are dedicated to being part of the solution,” Bob Josephson, executive director of communications for Purdue Pharma, wrote Friday in an email to The Palm Beach Post.

The Wilmington, Del.-based Purdue Pharma is one of 29 defendants consisting of drug manufacturing and distributing companies, retailers and individuals whom the county, in a suit filed Thursday in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, is alleging helped cause the epidemic, which the suit says is forcing the county to “expend exorbitant amounts of money.”

» RELATED: The Post’s complete coverage of Palm Beach County’s opioid crisis

Purdue Pharma also is one of several defendants who responded to The Post’s requests for comment. The others who responded with comments were Teva Pharmaceuticals, based in Palm Beach Gardens, and Healthcare Distribution Alliance, a trade group that includes three companies being sued by the county: McKesson Corp. of Tallahassee and Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp., both of Plantation.

Josephson, in his response to The Post, continued, “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 less than 2 percent of the total opioid prescriptions, as a company, we’ve distributed the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, developed three of the first four FDA-approved opioid medications 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.”

Teva’s spokeswoman, Michelle Larkin, said the company is “committed to the appropriate use of opioid medicines, and we recognize the critical public health issues impacting communities across the U.S. as a result of illegal drug use as well as the misuse and abuse of opioids that are available legally by prescription.”

John Parker, senior vice president for the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, said: “The misuse and abuse of prescription opioids is a complex public health challenge that requires a collaborative and systemic response that engages all stakeholders. Given our role, the idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated. Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation.”

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Representatives for other companies being sued by the county did not respond to requests for comment, or, in the case of Walgreens, said it has no comment.

The county’s complaint, which runs to 253 printed pages, alleges that the seeds of the epidemic were planted decades ago, when companies deliberately misled doctors about the potency and addictive nature of opioids.

“Defendants, through a sophisticated, highly deceptive and unfair marketing campaign that began in the 1990s, deepened around 2006, and continues to the present, set out to, and did, reverse popular and medical understanding of opioids,” the suit alleges. “Chronic opioid therapy — the prescribing of opioids to treat chronic pain long-term — is now commonplace.”

The change in how opioids were used was pursued for one reason, the suit claims: money.

All of those being sued “engaged in deceptive marketing, both branded and unbranded, that targeted and reached county prescribers,” the suit alleges. “In order to expand the market for opioids and realize blockbuster profits, defendants, through the use of unfair and deceptive practices, created a sea of change in the medical and public perception that the use of opioids (is) not just safe and effective for acute and palliative care, but also for long periods to treat more common aches and pains, like lower back pain, arthritis, and headaches.”

The county’s suit claims that the firms knew the drugs they were pushing could be devastating.

“Defendants knew that, barring exceptional circumstances, opioids were too addictive and too debilitating for long-term use for chronic non-cancer pain lasting three months or longer,” the suit alleges. “Defendants further knew — and had known for years — that with prolonged use, the effectiveness of opioids wanes, requiring increases in doses and markedly increasing the risk of known significant side effects and addiction.”

The impacts on Palm Beach County of the opioid epidemic have been seismic, according to the suit. They include:

  • Nearly 600 people died of opioid overdoses in Palm Beach County in 2017.
  • Homeless and the need for foster care have risen dramatically, with “45 percent of the children who entered into the Palm Beach County foster care systems were from parents with substance abuse problems, the majority of which were abusing opioids.”
  • Palm Beach County Fire Rescue spent $6 million in 2016 responding to more than 4,000 overdose calls.
  • 24,000 uninsured people in 2017 needed detoxification and residential treatment services but only 7 percent received such care.
  • In 2017, the county set aside $3 million “specifically to address the opioid problem.”
  • Lawyers representing the county say those being sued need to be held responsible for the suffering and costs of the epidemic.

“It is about time that these defendants answer for the huge adverse economic impact that they have caused and for which they are responsible to the people of Palm Beach County,” said Jim Ferraro of The Ferraro Law Firm, part of a three-firm team handling the county’s case.

Another of the county’s attorneys, Hunter Shkolnik, added: “We are proud that Palm Beach County has placed its trust in our team and we are moving fast to bring justice to the people of the county, who have had to carry this burden for too many years.”

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