Oklahoma targets opioid companies with lawsuit

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Choking back tears, standing at the podium, it's clear this lawsuit is personal for Mike Burrage.

The former federal judge's niece took her own life several years ago after struggling with addiction to opioids.

Now, Burrage is helping with a lawsuit, taking four pharmaceutical companies to court, holding them responsible for Oklahoma's addiction to powerful painkillers.

"This lawsuit is about money the taxpayers have been out because of treatment, but it’s also about much more," Burrage said. "[Companies] need to be honest when they make representations to doctors about the effect of a drug. With opioids, the doctors were lied to."

That's the basis of the lawsuit filed by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter.

Purdue Pharma; Cephalon, Inc.; Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc. and Allergan, PLC are the primary defendants. Hunter wants them to admit their wrongdoing, cease their false advertising and repay what could be billions in costs to Oklahoma taxpayers.

"We believe these companies are culpable for the tragic, heartbreaking number of Oklahomans who have become addicted or have died as a result of the opioid epidemic in our state," Hunter said at a press conference. "The lawsuit claims [the companies] knowingly marketed their drugs as safe for growing pain management while downplaying the risks of opioid dependency and overstating the effectiveness of the drugs."

Three of the four companies named in the suit sent NewsChannel 4 statements rebuking the charges.

“While we vigorously deny the allegations in the complaint, we share the attorney general’s concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions. OxyContin accounts for less than 2% of the opioid analgesic prescription market nationally, but we are an industry leader in the development of abuse-deterrent technology, advocating for the use of prescription drug monitoring programs and supporting access to Naloxone -- all important components for combating the opioid crisis,”  said John Puskar, with Purdue Pharma.

"Allergan has a history of supporting -- and continues to support -- the safe, responsible use of prescription medications. This includes opioid medications, which when sold, prescribed and used responsibly, play an appropriate role in pain relief for millions of Americans," said Mark Marmur, with Allergan, PLC.
“We recognize opioid abuse is a serious public health issue that must be addressed. At the same time, we firmly believe Janssen has acted responsibly and in the best interests of patients and physicians with regard to these medicines, which are FDA-approved and carry FDA-mandated warnings about possible risks on every product label. Janssen is committed to providing healthcare professionals with complete and accurate information on how to prescribe our opioid medications, which give doctors and patients important choices to help manage the debilitating effects of chronic pain, and we are continuing to work with stakeholders to support their safe and appropriate use," said William Foster, spokesperson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
The attorney general wants the pharmaceutical companies to admit wrongdoing for what the lawsuit calls "egregious conduct" that forced Oklahoma to pay millions in healthcare costs that stem from drug dependency. Hunter estimates damages could run into the billions of dollars.
If the state recoups those costs, Hunter would like to see the money put toward rehabilitative programs to help addicts.
"We believe these companies are culpable for the tragic, heartbreaking number of Oklahomans who have become addicted or have died as a result of the opioid epidemic in our state," he said. "Today we begin a fight to hold these companies accountable, slow the opioid crisis gripping the state and build a healthier Oklahoma."
Oklahoma is the fourth state to sue pharmaceutical companies over opioid drugs, following Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio. The lawsuit is filed in Cleveland County court because Hunter felt it reflected the rural/urban population balance that is affected.
Those who know opioid drugs well say the lawsuit is a good way to bring attention to what they call a crisis.
"I’m thinking that’s almost legitimizing and confirming yeah we have a serious problem here that needs to be addressed," said Justeen Cosar, who has used opiates for 20 years. "I view this as kind of a good thing because it’s raising our awareness, our consciousness."
However, Cosar doesn't necessarily blame drug companies for the drug use that has reached new heights in Oklahoma.
"I think maybe some well-meaning people are thinking that they’re helping and I just think a lot of it’s a lack of knowledge," said Cosar. "(The companies) do need to bear some responsibility but I think that we all do. I think that I bear responsibility as a patient, I think the doctor bears responsibility to find out what he can about this."