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East Texas county sues drug companies, alleges role in opioid crisis

Upshur County is suing a slew of prescription painkiller manufacturers and distributers in federal court, accusing them of fueling a nationwide opioid addiction epidemic. Other Texas governments may follow suit.

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An East Texas county is suing a slew of prescription painkiller manufacturers and distributers in federal court, accusing them of fueling an opioid addiction epidemic that has gripped communities across the nation — in part by allegedly inflating the drugs' benefits in treating chronic pain and downplaying the addiction risks.

In filing the lawsuit, Upshur County became the first of what could be more Texas governments to seek financial damages from companies alleged to have played a role in the opioid crisis.

Lawsuits are also expected from the East Texas counties of Bowie, Delta, Hopkins, Lamar, Red River and Smith, lawyers representing those governments — and Upshur County — said Wednesday.

The development comes as Attorney General Ken Paxton has inserted Texas into a 41-state investigation of companies that manufacture or sell opioids. Last month the states served investigative subpoenas or other requests to eight such companies and their affiliates, including some named in Upshur County’s lawsuit.

Defendants in the Upshur County challenge, filed in U.S. district court in Marshall, include: Purdue Pharma, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Pfizer, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Teva Pharmaceuticals, Allergan, AmerisourceBergen Corporation, Cardinal Health, McKesson Corporation, Abbott Laboratories and Johnson & Johnson.

Opioids are a family of drugs including prescription painkillers like hydrocodone, as well as illicit drugs like heroin.

Prescription and illegal opioids account for more than 60 percent of overdose deaths in the U.S., a toll that has quadrupled over the past two decades, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Drug overdose deaths in 2015 far outnumbered deaths from auto accidents or guns. 

Texas saw 1,186 opioid-related deaths in 2015, while the nation as a whole had 33,000 such deaths that year. Researchers have flagged opioids as one possible factor in Texas’ staggering rise in women’s deaths during and shortly after pregnancy.

In its lawsuit, Upshur County argues it “has spent and continues to spend large sums combatting the public health crisis created by Defendants’ negligent and fraudulent marketing campaign,” and is seeking an unspecified amount in damages. 

“There is no denying that we have an opioid crisis in America, and that the human misery and financial damage it causes is enormous,” said Jeffrey Simon, co-founder of Simon Greenstone Panatier Bartlett, who is representing Upshur County in the suit. “Although accidental overdoses have become the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50, the pharmaceutical industry has not been fully held accountable for its role in creating this epidemic.”

The drug companies refuted the allegations on Wednesday and pointed to policies that they said deter painkiller abuse.

“The people of Cardinal Health care deeply about the devastation opioid abuse has caused American families and communities and are committed to helping solve this complex national public health crisis,” said Geoffrey Basye, a spokesman for Cardinal Health. “We will defend ourselves vigorously in court and at the same time continue to work, alongside regulators, manufacturers, doctors, pharmacists and patients, to fight opioid abuse and addiction.”

In its own statement, Purdue Pharma said: “We are deeply troubled by the opioid crisis and we are dedicated to being part of the solution. ... We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.”

Simon, the attorney representing Upshur County, said his lawsuit would not interfere with the states’ investigation of companies involved in manufacturing and distributing opioids.

“There is no direct relationship with the investigation that AG Paxton has joined,” he said in an email. “Both will work in parallel, but the more information that is developed through the combination of these efforts, the better the public is served by revelation of the truth.”

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