Erie County's lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies represents the first of many expected from other New York State counties angry about "misleading" and "deceptive" marketing of addictive painkillers.
The drug manufacturers called Erie County's lawsuit "factually unfounded."
The lawyer representing Erie County said Suffolk and Broome counties already filed suits, and many other counties are likely to follow.
"Given the breadth of this problem, I would be very surprised if, at some point or another, we are not contacted – if not hired – by virtually all of the 62 counties in the state," said attorney Paul J. Hanly.
Hanly is a partner at Simmons Hanly Conroy, a law firm with six offices across the country and a track record for taking on the drug makers.
Parents of overdose victims praised Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz for going after the drug companies he likened to corner drug dealers.
Debra Smith, whose son died of an overdose after becoming addicted to painkillers prescribed by his doctor, said the suit will keep drug manufacturers from misleading well-intended physicians in the future.
"This is a healing moment for many families because we realize our children will no longer be addicted by a source that we trust," she said.
The county suit targets 11 pharmaceutical companies and related businesses that make promote, market and distribute opioid-based drugs such as OxyContin and Percocet and generics such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. In its complaint, the county alleges drug makers and drug promoters violated state laws through deception, false advertising, fraud and unjust enrichment among other claims.
The lawsuit also accuses four physicians of being paid by drug makers to promote their prescription painkillers and mislead other physicians regarding the drugs' addictive properties.
Pharmaceutical companies responded to the suit by saying they have been proactive in addressing prescription drug abuse and have played a vital role in helping millions of patients suffering from chronic pain.
"Janssen has acted appropriately, responsibly and in the best interests of patients regarding our opioid pain medications, which are FDA-approved and carry FDA-mandated warnings about the known risks of the medications on every product label," a Janssen Pharmaceuticals spokeswoman said in a statement. "We firmly believe the allegations in this lawsuit are both legally and factually unfounded."
Janssen is among the pharmaceutical companies that manufactures a fentanyl-based prescription pain medication.
Purdue Pharma, which produces OxyContin and has lost other suits filed by Simmons Hanly Conroy and others, offered a more measured statement.
"We share public officials’ concerns about the opioid crisis, and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions," the company said. "Although OxyContin accounts for only 2 percent of all pain-related opioid prescriptions, Purdue is an industry leader in abuse deterrence as we were the first pharmaceutical company to develop an opioid medication with abuse-deterrent properties.”
Both companies noted that their medication literature includes statements that their drugs may cause addiction, overdose and death. Hanly, however, said these companies had their drug representatives and other paid physicians downplay the federally mandated warnings from the Federal Drug Administration.
"They essentially went to doctors, to prescribing physicians, and said, 'Oh, don't worry about that fine print. Here's information that indicates that if properly administered, these drugs are not addictive,' " Hanley said. "This is a pattern that went on for many years."
Poloncarz ratcheted up his rhetoric against drug makers and their paid promoters, saying the lawsuit defendants should be held accountable for the addiction scourge in the county and the tens of millions it has cost the county to combat the opioid epidemic.
"They are all liable for the crisis they have created, not just here in Erie County, but across the entire United States," he said. "They need to be held responsible for the costs that have been incurred by our county in dealing with this health care crisis, and we need to let the public know that we will not let those responsible get away with what, in many ways, is murder."