MILWAUKEE (AP) — Nearly two dozen Wisconsin counties are suing makers of prescription painkillers, alleging in a federal lawsuit Tuesday that the companies' "nefarious and deceptive" marketing campaigns precipitated the nation's opioid overdose epidemic.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages and says the county health and law enforcement services "have been strained to the breaking point" because of the overdose crisis that has claimed thousands of lives. More than two dozen states, cities and counties have filed similar lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies, accusing them of making false claims about the dangers of their drugs to make a profit.
"Defendants' goal was simple: to dramatically increase sales by convincing doctors that it was safe and efficacious to prescribe opioids to treat not only the kind of severe and short-term pain associated with surgery or cancer, but also for a seemingly unlimited array of less severe, longer-term pain, such as back pain and arthritis to name but two examples," the lawsuit filed in the Eastern District of Wisconsin says.
Drug companies knew their "products were addictive, subject to abuse, and not safe or efficacious for long-term use," that lawsuit says. It names Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Endo Health Solutions, Inc. and subsidiaries of the companies. Three doctors in California and Utah are also listed.
"We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense," Purdue Pharma said in a statement that also said the company is "deeply troubled by the opioid crisis and we are dedicated to being part of the solution."
Endo Health Solutions said in a statement its "top priorities include patient safety and ensuring that patients with chronic pain have access to safe and effective therapeutic options" while preventing opioid abuse. It said it couldn't comment further on pending litigation. Johnson & Johnson said in a statement it had not yet received the counties' complaint but that the allegations in similar lawsuits are "legally and factually unfounded."
"Responsibly used opioid-based pain medicines give doctors and patients important choices to help manage the debilitating effects of chronic pain," the company's statement said. "At the same time, we recognize opioid abuse and addiction is a serious public health issue that must be addressed."
More than 52,000 Americans died in 2015 from drug overdoses, most of them involving prescription opioids or related illicit drugs such as fentanyl and heroin, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Wisconsin, 1,824 people died from opioid overdoses from 2013 to 2015, according to the lawsuit. One of the local governments taking legal action, Washington County, with a population of about 131,900, had 542 hospitalizations involving opioids last year, according to the lawsuit, and 70 opioid overdose deaths from 2013 to 2016.
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