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April 10, 2018

Lawsuit filed against 19 opioid manufactures – claim is that deceptive marketing led to opioid addiction, overdose deaths

Salt Lake County, UT— District Attorney Sim Gill, Mayor Ben McAdams and Sheriff Rosie Rivera today announced the county has filed a lawsuit against the makers of dangerously-addictive pain pills whose use sparked the current opioid addiction crisis, costing the lives and health of thousands of Salt Lake County residents and forcing the county to spend millions of public dollars to combat the epidemic.

The complaint says the drug makers “downplayed the serious risk of addiction” and pushed the pills to Utah doctors and patients at the astonishing prescribing rate of 90 percent – resulting in enough opioid prescriptions to annually supply nine out of every ten Utahns with one prescription each.

“We’re demanding that these companies be held accountable for their role in creating the opioid epidemic gripping Utah, with Salt Lake County disproportionately affected,” said Gill. “Nearly half of all fatal opioid overdoses in Utah annually occur in Salt Lake County – 531 in 2014-2015 alone-- and there’s no end in sight.”

The complaint says that to tap into the chronic pain (back pain, migraines, arthritis) treatment market, the companies had to convince doctors that the risk of addiction was overblown, and that opioid dependence and withdrawal are “easily managed.”  In Salt Lake County, data shows that pain-pill addiction frequently leads to heroin use, spurring a surge in opioid-related crime, a jail overwhelmed by addicts going through withdrawal and a spike in the demand for behavioral health treatment beds funded by Medicaid.

“The county has borne the brunt of this epidemic, forced to come up with significant resources to address the crime and the human carnage resulting from opioid addiction,” said McAdams. “Drug overdoses already kill more Americans under age 50 than anything else, and although we’re spending millions of dollars annually on addiction treatment, just a fraction of those in need are getting care.” 

Sheriff Rivera said that the combined joint efforts of both Operation Diversion and Operation Rio Grande worsened jail overcrowding, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in staff overtime and often saw hundreds of inmates going through withdrawal at a time, with the overwhelmed jail medical staff struggling to assist and dispense medication.

“The opioid epidemic has had a disproportionate effect on our jail in Salt Lake County,” said Sheriff Rivera. “I estimate our nurses spend 6 hours every day in the quarantine unit dealing with opioid related care. That would equate to around $110,000 annually.” 

Gill said the complaint, prepared and filed with the assistance of outside legal counsel, seeks to hold defendants accountable, individually and collectively, for creating a public nuisance in violation of state law; engaging in deceptive acts and practices in violation of the Utah Consumer Sales Practices Act; committing common law fraud; participating in a civil conspiracy; and unjustly enriching themselves at Salt Lake County’s expense. He said the county seeks all remedies available, including injunctive relief, damages, restitution and abatement.

National reports show the drug companies’ marketing schemes resulted in Americans being prescribed far more opioids than anyone else in the world—enough for almost every adult in America to have their own bottle of pills. In 2016 alone, nearly 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses –roughly as many as lost their lives in the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

Salt Lake County is one of dozens of states, counties and cities nationwide that have filed similar lawsuits.