Ohio Sues Drug Companies Over Role In Creating Opioid Epidemic

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The state of Ohio figures it's home to 200,000 opioid addicts. That's the equivalent of the population of Akron. Overdoses are so common, the morgues in some Ohio counties lack for space. Today Ohio's attorney general announced he's bringing a suit against five drug manufacturers, accusing them of misrepresenting the risks of prescription opioids and helping to fuel an addiction epidemic in his state.

The state attorney general, Mike DeWine, joins us now from Columbus. Welcome to the program once again.

MIKE DEWINE: Good to be back. Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And first tell us, which companies have you named in the suit?

DEWINE: We have sued the following companies - Purdue Pharma, Endo Health Solutions, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Cephalon and then Allergan.

SIEGEL: And what's the role that you believe that the pharmaceutical industry and those companies in particular played in the situation you're dealing with in Ohio these days?

DEWINE: You know, 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.

SIEGEL: Your suit says that in 2012, the total number of opioid doses prescribed to Ohio patients was enough to supply every man, woman, child in the state with 68 pills apiece. Obviously doctors were overprescribing. Your suit treats them as victims. Why aren't the doctors defendants as well?

DEWINE: Well, we believe the evidence clearly shows that the pharmaceutical companies targeted not the pain specialist doctors but rather the local general practitioner doctor. And they told them that these pain meds were not very addictive. They also exaggerated the good that these meds could do. And they did it in a very systematic way.

SIEGEL: But Attorney General DeWine, much of what you describe in the lawsuit has happened over the past 10 years, let's say. And 10 years ago, Purdue Pharma, one of the companies you are suing - the maker of OxyContin - and three of its executives were fined over $600 million for doing just about exactly what your suit says it's doing. Couldn't we have expected doctors to have learned over 10 years that OxyContin and other opioids were in fact more addictive than the drug companies had originally advertised?

DEWINE: Look; I mean we're doing everything we can in Ohio to change that culture among doctors. But this was not something that the pharmaceutical companies just, you know, woke up some day and just started to do a little bit of it. I mean there's a concerted effort from extended number of years to really pound this into the heads of doctors.

And when you're told something time and time and time again and there's a lot of advertising that is being spent, yeah, it takes a while to turn that around. And what we're saying is these drug companies have not been responsible enough. They have not done what they should have done to turn it around and that to some extent, they continue to do it.

SIEGEL: Mississippi brought a suit similar to the one that you've brought. City of Chicago has a suit like this. Do you foresee states, cities, counties going after drug companies the way the states went after tobacco companies?

DEWINE: Well, it remains to be seen. You know, I would certainly hope that other states would take a hard look at this. We think the evidence is clearly there. And this has been a great cost not only to the taxpayers in the state of Ohio but many other states as well. And so I would hope that, you know, people in those states would take a look at that.

SIEGEL: You're a Republican. Your party controls not just Ohio but, here in Washington, Congress and the White House. Everyone was talking about the opioid crisis last year. Are you dissatisfied with the lack of federal action this year?

DEWINE: Congress passed I think a very, very strong bill. Senator Portman was one of the leaders of that. And you know, we like that bill. It's just now starting to take effect as money comes back to the states.

I think everybody in public office needs to be talking about this opioid crisis. For example, in Ohio, we think we're losing 10, 12 people every single day. You know, if we were losing that many people in a terrorist attack and then next day, the same thing, and the next day, the same thing, well, we would be all up in arms. And this would be a crisis. And so, you know, I think we need to look at this as a crisis. And every public official as well as every citizen needs to do everything that they can to try to turn this thing around.

SIEGEL: That's Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who's bringing a suit against five pharmaceutical companies, accusing them of helping to fuel the opioid crisis in his state. Thanks for talking with us.

DEWINE: Good to be with you. Thank you.

SIEGEL: We asked the drug companies named in Ohio's lawsuit for their response. Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, said in a statement, we share the attorney general's concerns about the opioid crisis, and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions. The company Janssen said, we firmly believe the allegations in this lawsuit are both legally and factually unfounded. Janssen has acted appropriately, responsibly and in the best interests of patients. The companies Endo Health Services and Allergan declined to comment. And Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, which owns Cephalon, did not respond. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.