Washington became the latest jurisdiction in October to sue Purdue Pharma, the maker of the drug OxyContin, joining several other states as well as counties and cities that have been filing lawsuits against manufacturers of opioids. The lawsuit seeks civil penalties and damages to claw back the huge profits gained by Purdue Pharma as it aggressively marketed OxyContin despite mounting evidence the drug is highly addictive.
A problem that has been declared a national public-health epidemic, opioid addiction has become a hot issue for government agencies starting at the local level and all the way up to federal.
At press time, Pierce County Council was scheduled to adopt a resolution on Oct. 31 to declare a state of opioid crisis in Pierce County. Among the statistics that the resolution cites is that Pierce County experienced a rate of 10.2 opioid deaths per 100,000 residents, compared to the state average of 9.8.
“I really appreciated the council’s strong statement on the opioid epidemic and how it is devastating our community,” said Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier at the Oct. 3 Pierce County Council meeting.
The meeting, which took place in Gig Harbor, had several Key Peninsula representatives, whom Dammeier acknowledged.
“We have several leaders out there (KP), like Jeremiah Saucier [director of Crossroads Treatment Center in Lakewood who has proposed a treatment facility on the KP] in the back and others, perhaps even greater than in other parts of the county, where nonprofits are stepping up to create solutions,” Dammiere said. “While welcoming support from the county, they are not waiting for the government to solve those problems for them.”
Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the state, alleges that the trail of opioid addiction in Washington began with an aggressive marketing campaign designed by Purdue Pharma, which assured doctors that OxyContin provided highly effective pain management, even when prescribed to patients suffering long-term chronic pain.
“Purdue Pharma ignored the devastating consequences of its opioids and profited from its massive deception,” Ferguson said in a statement.
The blame for the current opioid crisis gripping communities nationwide did not begin with sketchy-looking people in backlit alleys. The crisis was not cooked up inside derelict houses nor smuggled into the country by well-organized criminals. Instead, the crisis began in the 1990s, when pharmaceutical companies like Purdue marketed their drugs as nonaddictive, and physicians began prescribing them routinely.
Sales consequently skyrocketed — in Washington state, they grew more than 500 percent between 1997 and 2011, according to a press release that announced Ferguson’s lawsuit.
“In 2011, at the peak of overall sales in Washington, more than 112 million daily doses of all prescription opioids were dispensed in the state — enough for a 16-day supply for every woman, man and child in Washington,” the announcement stated.
Among its marketing claims, Purdue distributed thousands of videos and pamphlets claiming that opioid addiction occurred in less than 1 percent of patients, the Attorney General’s Office said. The actual addiction rate is as high as 26 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
“There is no good evidence that opioids improve pain or function with long-term use,” according to the Centers for Disease Control in its 2016 guidelines. The CDC says that safer options, like acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, “are effective and carry fewer risks.”
Prescription opioids act in the same way to produce feelings of euphoria — and cause withdrawal symptoms — as heroin and morphine, which are also opioids. The CDC estimates that in 2014, 2 million Americans had substance-use disorders related to prescription opioid painkillers, compared to 591,000 whose disorders stemmed from heroin use.
“We don’t have enough resources for people coming in addicted,” Saucier said. “When I go to meetings to talk about opioids and ask people attending to stand up if they have been affected in their lives; nearly everyone stands.”