The Dakota County Board of Commissioners today approved initiating a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies and distributors over negligence and unfair trade practices, including aggressive, fraudulent marketing of prescription opioid painkillers, which has fueled opioid drug addiction and strained public resources in Dakota County and across Minnesota and the country in dealing with the epidemic.
“Companies that manufacture, distribute and market these drugs are causing a cycle of destruction in Dakota County,” said Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom. “Much of the methamphetamine and heroin addiction we see begins with opioid use. When a person can no longer obtain opioids from a prescription, the user often turns to illegal street drugs such as meth, which is the most prosecuted illegal drug in Dakota County. This path of destruction includes death, hospitalizations, destroyed families, workplace productivity losses and overloaded public services working to combat this critical health and safety crisis.”
The Dakota County lawsuit will seek changes in pharmaceutical marketing practices for opioids, preventative public education, training of non-health care professionals to expand ability to stop the crisis as well as monetary relief for Dakota County including compensatory and punitive damages for the tax dollars spent each year to combat the opioid public health crisis. The national firm of Motley Rice has been retained to represent Dakota County and will work with the Twin Cities firm of Briol & Benson on a contingent fee basis. The law firms will only receive compensation and reimbursement of costs if the lawsuit is successful.
Opioids are pain-reducing medications such as oxycodone, fentanyl and morphine also known under brand names such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin. These medications were created to treat severe short-term pain. However, irresponsible and fraudulent marketing campaigns by the pharmaceutical industry touted opioids as safe, non-addictive pain relievers that could be safely used long-term by those with chronic pain conditions.
These deceptive claims led to physicians, patients, health care providers and health care payers perceiving opioids as a safe, non-addictive treatment for most patients dealing with chronic pain. In 2015, there were more than 33,000 deaths nationally from opioid overdoses, and opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 1999, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In Minnesota, 395 residents died from opioid-involved drug overdoses in 2016, an 18 percent increase over 2015, when 336 people died, according to data by the Minnesota Department of Health’s new Opioid Dashboard.
Among Dakota County residents there were 26 opioid-involved overdose deaths in 2016, which is double what the County saw a decade ago, in 2007. Dakota County Sheriff Tim Leslie says that these are misleadingly low numbers because these figures do not include deaths of people whose addiction began with opioids and then who died from an overdose or complications caused by using illegal street drugs. Such illegal drugs are most often sought when an addicted person can no longer obtain an opioid prescription.
“Our jails are filled with people who are committing crimes in Dakota County to feed their addiction, but we cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” said Leslie. “The drivers of this public health and safety crisis are the pharmaceutical companies and distributors who are feeding off of people’s pain and harming them, their families, their workplaces and fueling increased crime in our county.”
Dakota County Board Chair Mike Slavik says the impact of opioid epidemic doesn’t stop at the human toll.
“This epidemic is substantially straining public resources such as health care, criminal justice, first responders, public safety, and social services,” said Slavik. “The deceptive marketing of pharmaceutical companies and distributors and the destruction it is inflicting physically, socially and financially must stop, and that is why it is imperative that Dakota County advance this lawsuit.”
According to the CDC, the overall financial toll nationally is at least $78.5 billion due to increased health care and substance abuse treatment costs, public sector health care costs and criminal justice costs.