St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly is suing pharmaceutical companies he accuses of misleading Illinoisans about the danger of the opioid prescription painkillers.
Kelly announced the suit Thursday against Purdue Pharma and Abbott Laboratories on behalf of St. Clair County and the state of Illinois.
Purdue Pharma made several popular opioids using hydrocodone, oxycodone and morphine, and Abbott Laboratories promoted and distributed those drugs.
The suit alleges that Purdue and Abbott knew for years that the products they made and sold, though helpful to treat both short- and long-term pain, were highly addictive and yet the companies worked to reverse this perception in the medical community.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
Purdue issued a statement in response to the suit: “We share public officials’ concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions. OxyContin accounts for only 2 percent of the opioid analgesic prescription market nationally, but we are an industry leader in the development of abuse-deterrent technology and advocating for the use of prescription drug monitoring programs.”
Abbott also issued a statement in response to the suit: “Abbott no longer sells any pharmaceuticals in the U.S. and discontinued co-promotion with Purdue nearly 14 years ago. Abbott is fully indemnified by Purdue for this matter.”
The suit states that a drug company should never “place its desire for profits above the health and well-being” of customers.
“Drug manufacturers have a legal duty to ensure their products are accompanied by full and accurate instructions and warnings to guide prescribing doctors and other healthcare providers in making treatment decisions,” the suit states. “They must tell the truth when marketing their drugs and ensure that their marketing claims are supported by science and medical evidence. Defendants broke these simple rules.”
Instead, Purdue and Abbott “spent hundreds of millions of dollars” to disperse misleading information and falsely advertise opioids, the suit alleges.
The suit says St. Clair County and Illinois have seen “addiction, overdose, and death” from opioid abuse.
“It was defendants’ marketing — and not any medical breakthrough — that rationalized prescribing opioids for chronic pain and opened the floodgates of opioid use and abuse,” the suit argues. “The result has been catastrophic.”
Debra Donze is one person who was affected by the rule-breaking.
“I used to do ‘Show-Me St. Louis,’ but fun things — crafts and art,” the former radio broadcaster said. “All happy, happy things. But my real life is ‘heroin addict at home.’”
Donze’s oldest son, Robert, 35, is a recovering drug addict who started with Ritalin, a prescription medication commonly used for attention deficit disorder, in middle school, Donze said. He started taking opioids in high school. Donze was often prescribed pills when she had dentists’ appointments, but she took good care of her prescriptions and counted the pills she had. Her son found it elsewhere, including in his grandmother’s medicine cabinet.
He would eventually move on to heroin. It was a cheap habit at the time, but recovery has not been. A drug rehabilitation program cost the family $130,000. Insurance paid for $50,000, and Robert, who made good money as a union pipe-fitter, emptied his 401(k) to help pay for the rest, Donze said.
“Treat it like a loaded gun,” Donze said about opioids. She wishes they were prescribed with more caution, and she is happy with the lawsuit. “This makes some awareness to how dangerous this stuff is.”
It was defendants’ marketing — and not any medical breakthrough — that rationalized prescribing opioids for chronic pain and opened the floodgates of opioid use and abuse. The result has been catastrophic.
Lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies
Chris Keel’s daughter Jennifer also started with prescription medication in middle school. She received a variety of medication to work with doctors’ varying assessments of her mental health, including Xanax and Valium. Once, when she got hurt physically, her aunt took her to the emergency room, and doctors prescribed her Vicodin, an opioid.
Eventually, when she could no longer get Xanax, she started taking heroin. She started at 16. Her mother found out when she was 18. And she died at 20.
“She was doing it for two years, and then the sweatshirts came off, and that’s when I saw the needle marks on her arms,” Keel said. “She’ll be 25 — well, she would have been 25 — May 2.”
Her advice for other parents is to avoid opioids for their kids.
“If your child has to get their tooth pulled or anything, don’t let them be prescribed anything that is a narcotic,” she said. All it takes is one time for them to get addicted.
Keel is happy with the lawsuit against the drug companies.
“It’s all about money to them,” she said. She hopes the suit will help other people so no one has to go through what she did and bury their children, she said.
The suit accuses the companies of conducting “an experiment on the population of the United States.”
The suit alleges that the dramatic increase in opioid prescriptions to treat common chronic pain conditions has resulted in a population of addicts who seek drugs from doctors. When turned down by one physician, many of these addicts deploy increasingly desperate tactics —including doctor-shopping, use of aliases, and criminal means — to satisfy their cravings, “cravings which defendants first fostered then fueled,” the suit alleges.
The suit does not seek a specific amount in damages, but says St. Clair County has been damaged “in a substantial amount to be determined at trial.”
Along with a monetary judgment, the suit seeks an order “compelling defendants to disgorge all unjust enrichment to St. Clair County,” an order “compelling defendants to pay three times any money acquired as a result of defendants’ fraud” and reimbursement for attorney fees.
Three attorneys — David Cates, Eric Holland and Christopher Cueto — are representing the county in the suit by serving as specially-appointed assistant state’s attorneys. They were chosen based on previous experience with the subject and in similar cases, Kelly said.
They would be paid 30 percent of the money from a settlement or 35 percent of the money from a judgment, Kelly said, adding that it was a standard fee for the type of work. They would not be paid if they don’t win.
This suit is the latest in a wave of litigation filed by counties and states, which seek reimbursement from drug manufacturers for problems caused in communities by opioids.
▪ Attorneys in West Virginia, which has the highest opioid overdose rate in the nation, filed lawsuits in federal court in March on behalf of two counties, targeting some of the nation’s largest drug distribution companies
▪ The Cherokee Nation has filed a lawsuit in tribal court accusing the country’s top pharmacies and drug distributors of pumping its 14 counties in northeastern Oklahoma with highly addictive pain pills, according to The Daily Beast. For adults within the Cherokee Nation, overdose deaths now outnumber deaths due to car accidents.
▪ The city of Everett, Washington, sued Purdue Pharma, according to the Los Angeles Times, accusing the company of ignoring illegal trafficking that lead to widespread addiction and abuse in the community.
▪ In 2008, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal sued the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seeking stronger warnings related to OxyContin.
▪ The state of Kentucky won $24 million in a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma that accused the company of misleading the public about the addictive nature of the drug, according to CBS News.
▪ Several lawsuits have been filed against Abbott Laboratories relating to birth defects and misleading marketing, according to DrugWatch.com, a consumer advocacy website.