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Oakland, Wayne sue drug makers over opioid crisis

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News
Attorney E. Powell Miller, left, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson discuss their lawsuit against drug makers over the opioid crisis during a news conference Thursday in Detroit.

Detroit — Oakland and Wayne counties are suing several pharmaceutical makers over what they call "deceptive marketing practices" amid a rising number of opioid deaths, officials said Thursday.

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Wayne County Executive Warren Evans announced a joint federal lawsuit against drug makers at a news conference at the Guardian Building in downtown Detroit.

"The opioid industry has taken a page out of big tobacco's playbook," Patterson said Thursday in a statement. "They utilized misleading information, marketing campaigns, and studies to convince the public that their product was safe. They put profits over people and now people are paying the price, some with their lives."

Their suit, filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Detroit , alleges several drug makers intentionally misled doctors and patients about their products' appropriate uses, risks and safety while downplaying the risks of addiction.

Opioid-related deaths have skyrocketed in Wayne and Oakland counties. Wayne County deaths rose 61 percent in 2016 from 506 to 817. In Oakland County, they've increased 267 percent from nine deaths in 2009 to 33 deaths in 2015. Macomb County had 86 opioid-related deaths in 2015, a 60 percent jump from 2014's 50 deaths.

Statewide, the number of opioid-related deaths also are on an upswing.

"This is a full-blown health crisis from which the drug companies made billions," Evans said in a statement. "People are dying and lives are being ruined by addiction as this horrible tragedy unfolds. We see the devastation every day in our hospitals, in our jails, and at the morgue, and it's getting worse. There has to be a price paid when corporations show such disregard for human life."

Rochester-based Miller Law Firm PC and Robbins, Geller, Rudman and Dowd LLP are representing Oakland and Wayne counties in the suit.

The lawsuit seeks to stop drug companies from making further false or misleading statements about opioids and stop them from not reporting suspicious drug orders. It also seeks legal costs and damages.

"There was a concerted, and tragically successful effort to get more doctors to prescribe these drugs while distorting the conversation about addiction," said E. Powell Miller, lead counsel for the counties, in a statement. "As communities like Oakland and Wayne County continue to shoulder the burden of this epidemic, justice demands that the companies responsible pay for the tragedy they've created."

County officials declined to comment on how much each county was paying the law firms representing them, but Miller said the end-game is to have the drug makers foot the bill after his clients win in court.

Representatives from Macomb County, were absent at Thursday's news conference and its name is not among the lawsuit's plaintiffs.

Evans said he didn’t think anyone asked Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel if the county wanted to join the lawsuit, but the county is welcome to do so.

“There’s still plenty of time for Macomb County to join, if it chooses to,” he said.

But Macomb County leaders said the county isn't a part of the  suit because it is in the early stages of filing its own legal challenge over the opioid crisis, Hackel said Thursday.

"We are working with a Michigan law firm that's teamed up with a New York firm," he said. "We're in the fact-finding, information-gathering stages, but we're doing the same thing."

He said there will be no cost to the county because the firm's legal cost will be covered by any payout from a lawsuit. Hackel said the county will announce which firm it's working with when it files the lawsuit.

Caitlin Carroll, a spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association that represents biopharmaceutical research companies, said the group cannot comment on legal matters relating to specific member companies.

However, she said the group is strongly committed to working with those in the healthcare industry and policymakers to help address the opioid crisis.

She said it has created policy recommendations and is working with the federal government to foster a public-private partnership that aims to speed up the development of non-opioid drugs for pain and addiction recovery. 

In addition, the group said in September it supports policies limiting the supply of opioids to seven days for acute pain.

Officials estimate 1,981 people died from drug overdoses statewide in 2015, up 13.5 percent from the previous year and the state's third consecutive year of increases in drug-related deaths. Deaths from opioids in Michigan have also more than quadrupled from 455 in 1999.

Last month, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said he had joined a bipartisan coalition of 41 of his counterparts from across the country to investigate prescription opioid drug makers and distributors.

He said the group has requested information and documents from opioid manufacturers and distributors about their marketing, distribution and sales.

Schuette also has formed an Opioid Trafficking and Interdiction Unit.

In August, President Donald Trump said he would officially declare the U.S. opioid crisis a “national emergency” and pledged to ramp up government efforts to combat the epidemic.