Editorial: Other cities should join Delray lawsuit against Big Pharma

  • The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board
Jan 03, 2018
The opioid crisis has forced Delray Beach city officials to spend millions on opioid- and addiction-related services — including law enforcement — that could have gone to other pressing needs. (Lannis Waters / The Palm Beach Post)

The city of Delray Beach has had enough of the opioid crisis. And now, tired of draining its resources against a devastating drug scourge, city officials have taken the audacious step of suing Big Pharma in federal court.

The legal action is a long-overdue attempt to recoup millions for fighting a national epidemic. It’s the first Florida city to join a growing number of communities across the country that have taken legal action against a new, corporate breed of drug-pushers. It shouldn’t be the last.

Far from a frivolous lawsuit, the city’s decision to sue the pharmaceutical industry is a well-reasoned attempt to gain compensation for the time, money and resources spent to address the devastation heaped on the city by some of the nation’s largest Fortune 500 firms.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more people in the United States now die from drugs than automobile accidents, and the use of prescription painkillers costs health insurers up to $72.5 billion annually in direct health care costs.

Palm Beach County is one of the hardest-hit counties in the state, and Delray Beach — a leading destination for drug treatment — sits at the epicenter. The crisis has forced city officials to spend millions on opioid- and addiction-related services that could have gone to other pressing needs.

Cephalon, Endo International, Insys, Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals may not be household names. But these firms, targeted in the Delray lawsuit, read like a who’s who of multinational corporations whose sales tactics would make any two-bit street pusher proud.

For generations, physicians were taught that opium and similar painkillers were highly addictive and should be used sparingly and mainly for patients near death. But, as the lawsuit details, opioid-makers engaged in a long-running campaign to market their drugs as fixes for “chronic pain”: back pain, headaches, arthritis and other common conditions. Unsuspecting patients began popping OxyContin and other powerful opioids like breath mints.

It was a “concerted, coordinated strategy” by the largest drugmakers and distributors to deceptively market their products, the city alleges. On their way to stunning profits, Big Pharma converted the medical and academic communities and government regulators to the idea that opioids were safe for long-term use.

As opioid use spread, so did addictions — and overdoses. In 2016 alone, Delray Beach spent about $3 million responding to more than 700 opioid overdose calls. The costs include employee overtime, new equipment for first responders, the overdose antidote, naloxone – and mental health services for employees who must respond to overdose scenes.

If Big Pharma’s marketing tactics sound familiar, it should. Tobacco companies used a similar approach in pushing cigarettes on an unsuspecting consumer market that included children. Big Tobacco downplayed the health risk of its products, just like Big Pharma is doing today.

Florida ultimately turned to the courtroom against Big Tobacco. Cursory observers gave the state little chance to win anything from an industry that routinely made smoking look fashionable. Yet in 1998, the suit resulted in the U.S.’s largest civil litigation agreement, which forced tobacco companies to make annual payments for anti-smoking campaigns and health programs.

The state of Florida can — and should — take legal action again. It’s disappointing that Attorney General Pam Bondi won’t even talk about doing so.

Fortunately, other communities refuse to remain quiet. Such states as Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio have already sued Big Pharma. So have Chicago; Dayton, Ohio; Everett, Washington, and the Cherokee Nation.

Florida is suffering no less than those places. An estimated 15 persons in this state died each day in 2016 from opioids or with some form of the painkiller in their system, according to a Palm Beach Post analysis. The 5,725 deaths are a 35 percent jump from 2015.

We believe the city has a good case. As the body count in America’s “Recovery County” has grown, drug companies have paid local physicians to promote oxycodone and other pain medication, all the while understating the addictive nature of their products.

Taking on the pharmaceutical industry is no small challenge. Yet the city of Delray Beach is stepping up to it. The opioid crisis is a big problem, calling for equally large solutions — remedies Delray Beach shouldn’t face alone.