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With millions of opioid prescriptions across the nation and a spike in heroin use and deaths, many people are looking for answers. Opioid overdoses have now surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of death in the United States. Many states are beginning to take action, whether it be increasing penalties and fines for drug users, regulating the number of prescriptions written, or giving more funding to drug treatment programs. But one state, Ohio, is starting to point fingers at whom they believe is at fault for this rise in addiction and deaths.

The State of Ohio has filed a lawsuit against major pharmaceutical companies that they believe fueled the epidemic and mislead doctors and patients alike. Ohio’s Attorney General, Mike DeWine, alleged several major companies “helped unleash a health care crisis that has had far-reaching financial, social, and deadly consequences in the State of Ohio.” The lawsuit specifically targets the companies’ marketing campaigns and their exaggerations of benefits of opioid painkillers.

The lawsuit, only the second of its kind, has sent shock and controversy across the nation. With a popular stigma and misunderstanding of addiction, many people still blame addicts for misusing opioids. This lawsuit specifically suggests that drug companies knew exactly how addicting these substances were and engaged in careless, to even fraudulent, campaigning of the drugs in order to increase sales. Many have compared the lawsuit to the groundbreaking Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, which was litigation against major tobacco companies for marketing and exaggerating the health risks, or lack thereof, using tobacco products. The tobacco lawsuit settled at more than $200 billion.

Who Are These Companies?

The suit is likely to set a national standard, which may lead to stronger action. The companies are some of the largest and most prominent names in the industry, including:

  • Purdue Pharma
  • Endo Health Solutions
  • Teva Pharmaceutical Industries
  • Cephalon (subsidiary of Teva)
  • Johnson & Johnson
  • Janssen Pharmaceuticals (subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson)
  • Allergan

Other states, counties, and cities have begun or have taken similar action as Ohio. Mississippi filed a lawsuit in 2015 which is still pending and West Virginia reached a settlement with several drug distributors. The city of Chicago and several counties in New York, California, and West Virginia have all begun to draft similar lawsuits or legislation.

Why They Blame The Drug Companies

DeWine’s office stated that the “lawsuit alleges that the drug companies engaged in fraudulent marketing regarding the risks and benefits of prescription opioids which fueled Ohio’s opioid epidemic.” DeWine commented to NPR News, “We believe that the evidence will show that these pharmaceutical companies purposely misled doctors about the dangers connected with pain meds that they produced and that they did so for the purpose of increasing sales, and boy did they increase sales.”

Initially, these companies marketed the drugs for acute severe pain. As some doctors began prescribing them more often and for longer lengths of time, the companies saw an opportunity and changed their approach. Drug makers began to market the medications for moderate to severe chronic pain, suitable for long term treatment. The drugs include the likes of OxyContin, Percocet, Dilaudid, Fentanyl, and many others. These are now known to be among the most addictive substances on the planet with a very high likelihood of developing physical dependence.

The lawsuit specifically accuses several drug manufacturers of spending “millions of dollars on promotional activities and materials that falsely deny or trivialize the risks of opioids while overstating the benefits of using them for chronic pain.” The suit went on to also accuse the companies of bribing prominent doctors, medical societies, and patient advocacy groups to support the drugs. The suit also mentions that by 2012 all of the opioid prescriptions in Ohio was equal to 68 pills a year for every single human in the state.

The reason why this suit could be so groundbreaking is because the nation is under a severe opioid overdose crisis. States that have cracked down on prescription opioids or that have regulated its use have resulted in those patients switching to illicit drugs like heroin or illegally purchased pills. As of recent, heroin has commonly been ‘cut’ with fentanyl analog synthetic painkillers, some of which are 10,000 times more potent than morphine.

Even pills bought illegally may not be what you think they are. Many dealers are beginning to purchase their own pill press machines in order to counterfeit prescription painkillers. These fake pills are also commonly cut with fentanyl or other dangerous additives. The recent trend of fentanyl analogs is the reason drug overdose has surpassed car accidents as a leading cause of death. From 2015 to 2016, drug overdose deaths saw a 19% increase, which is the ever recorded jump.

Ohio specifically seeks to get back money that the state has spent on Medicaid and addiction treatment. Purdue Pharma released a statement saying, “We share the attorney general’s concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions.”