Contra Costa County sues drug giants over growing opioid crisis

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Blaming opioid manufacturers and distributors for creating an opioid epidemic in the state, Contra Costa County on Wednesday joined 30 other California counties in a lawsuit against several pharmaceutical drug giants.

The suit names six manufactures, including Purdue Pharma, for misinforming doctors about the addictiveness and efficacy of opioids, among other things.

The lawsuit  also claims that the nation’s largest drug distributors failed to monitor, identify and report suspicious opioid shipments to pharmacies, in violation of the federal Controlled Substances Act.

Attorneys said the lawsuit seeks reimbursement of unspecified taxpayer funds that already have been spent responding to and fighting the opioid epidemic in Contra Costa County. The county is seeking unspecified damages for such things as emergency response and prevention, monitoring and treatment programs. 

“For too long, local governments have subsidized the bad acts of some of the largest corporations in our country which are reaping billion-dollar profits and placing profits over public safety,” said attorney John Fiske with the Texas-based law firm Baron & Budd.

Representatives for Purdue Pharma did respond to requests seeking comment Wednesday, however, the company, best known for selling the painkiller OxyContin, announced in February that it would stop marketing opioid drugs to doctors.

While Contra Costa County is the only Bay Area county involved in the suit, the counties of Sacramento, Placer, Sutter, Yuba, Mendocino, Monterey and Fresno, have also joined the fight, Fiske said. Nationwide, more than 500 public entities have filed similar suits.

To understand the staggering crisis, consider this: more people die from opioid overdoes each year than from automobile accidents or gun homicides. Drug overdoes are the leading cause of death in Americans under the age of 50.

In 2016, seven Americans died every hour from overdoes, amounting to roughly 64,000 deaths that year. Moreover, nearly 2 million Americans are addicted to opioids. 

In Contra Costa County, 53 people died from opioids in 2016, up from 49 deaths the year before, according to information from the California Department of Public Health. That same year, 126 people in Contra Costa County visited the emergency department due to opioid overdoses (excluding heroin) and another 113 people were hospitalized.

And there's more bad news. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released findings that show that the life expectancy of Americans declined for a second consecutive year in 2016, largely because of a rising death rate from drug overdoses.

The CDC says a baby that was born in the United States in 2016 can expect to live 78.6 years. That’s a decrease of more than a month from 2015 and two months from 2014. 

The last time the U.S. saw two consecutive years of decline in life expectancy was in 1962 and 1963. That was due to the flu. 

In fact, the crisis is so bad that earlier this year Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams issued an advisory asking people to carry Naloxone, which is commonly known as Narcan.  

The drug can be given by nasal mist or injection and can temporarily suspend the effects of an opioid overdoe, including heroin and prescription pain medications. Adams said the move is crucial because 75 percent of overdoses occur in non-medical settings and Americans can provide help before medics arrive.

But there is some potentially good news. In October, the Trump administration declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency under federal law. 

The declaration does not allocate funds towards the war on drugs, but federal agencies will be directed to devote more grant money already in their budget to the staggering problem.