Baltimore County threatens lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, distributors

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore County has announced plans to file a federal lawsuit against pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors of opioids.

County officials say the suit — which is not yet filed — will seek monetary damages for expenses incurred by the county in its fight against opioid abuse. The county did not name companies that will be cited in the lawsuit.

“The opioid crisis has led to a significant increase of overdoses from heroin and prescription drug abuse,” said Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz in a press release Monday.

He said officials believe “the pharmaceutical industry pressured and cajoled physicians into prescribing opioids for chronic pain, and vastly misrepresented the risk of addiction.

Officials say the county has incurred expenses relating to first-responder answering calls, drug and alcohol counseling and loss of economic revenue, among other costs.

“The desire to increase profits on the part of drug companies is a leading cause of our nation’s health crisis,” said Kamenetz, a Democrat who has announced a 2018 run for governor.

Baltimore County officials say they expect to file in federal District Court, and the county will enter a retainer agreement with the law firm Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP. Officials said the firm already represents cities and counties in Michigan, Florida and Arizona in similar opioid litigation.

The agreement is subject to approval by the County Council. The council has recently discussed the state of the county’s opioid response, and through a resolution directed the county health department to review the county’s heroin and opioid programs.

Last week Anne Arundel County government filed a similar lawsuit in the county’s Circuit Court against manufacturers and local prescribers, alleging that companies misled doctors and medical practices about their drugs’ effects. Arundel hired the Washington D.C.-based firm Motley Rice, which is representing four states and 12 other municipalities or counties in similar suits, according to its website.

While Baltimore County did not release the names of the firms it intends to sue, Anne Arundel’s suit cites some of the leading manufacturers of opioids, including Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of the opioid painkiller OxyContin.

Most of the companies named in Arundel’s suit have declined comment — including Purdue. But one of the firms, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, said in an email the company believes “the allegations in the lawsuits against our company are both legally and factually unfounded.”

"Janssen has acted in the best interests of patients and physicians with regard to its opioid pain medicines, which are FDA-approved and carry FDA-mandated warnings about possible risks on every product label,” said spokeswoman Jessica Smith.

Another company named in the Arundel suit, Percocet manufacturer Endo Pharmaceuticals, similarly said in a statement that the firm denies the allegations and that officials "intend to vigorously defend the Company.” And the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, a national organization representing primary pharmaceutical distributors, said they are “deeply engaged in the issue and are taking our own steps to be part of the solution – but we aren’t willing to be scapegoats.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood and Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter Phil Davis contributed to this article.

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