Health & Human Services

In Lawsuit, Governments Blame Companies' Marketing for Drug Epidemic

August 25, 2014

As the country struggles to combat the growing abuse of heroin and opioid painkillers, a new battlefield is emerging: the courts.

The City of Chicago and two California counties are challenging the drug industry’s way of doing business, contending in two separate lawsuits that “aggressive marketing” by five companies has fueled an epidemic of addiction and cost taxpayers millions of dollars in insurance claims and other health care costs.

The severity of drug abuse is well documented: Use of prescription opioids contributed to 16,651 deaths in the United States in 2010 alone, and to an estimated 100,000 deaths in the past decade. When people cannot find or afford prescription painkillers, many have increasingly turned to heroin.

The lawsuits assert that drug makers urged doctors to prescribe the drugs far beyond their traditional use to treat extreme conditions, such as acute pain after surgery or injury or cancer pain, while underplaying the high risk of addiction. Such marketing, the plaintiffs say, has contributed to widespread abuse, addiction, overdose and death.

Taking the drug makers to court recalls the tobacco liability wars of the 1990s, with government entities suing in the hope of addressing a public health problem and forcing changes from an industry they believed was in denial about the effects of its products. The tobacco settlement led to agreements by the tobacco industry to change marketing practices, which is a goal of the opioid lawsuits.

But there are differences: The $246 billion tobacco settlement involved a product that was at best lightly regulated, while narcotics are already heavily regulated by federal and state government. Still, the private law firms that have filed the opioid suits, including the public-interest firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, have encouraged governments to join their fight.

The Chicago lawsuit cites an estimate that about 1,100 emergency room visits in the city in 2009 could be attributed to opioid abuse and overdose, with the city paying $9.5 million in insurance claims for prescriptions since 2008 and much more in related health care costs.

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