Darien considers joining municipal lawsuit against drug companies over opioid marketing

The Town of Darien is considering partnering with Waterbury in a class action lawsuit against major drug companies over marketing campaigns related to opioids and resulting addiction.

Six other municipalities in Connecticut have already committed to partner with Waterbury in the case, including New Milford, Naugatuck, Oxford, Bristol, Wolcott, Roxbury and Bridgeport.

Darien First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, along with Patti Gaug, from the town counsel office of Curtis Brinckerhoff & Barrett, attended an informational meeting in Waterbury on Thursday, Aug. 31.

“We learned that suit, filed today by the City of Waterbury, is crafted after a lawsuit already pending in Suffolk County, New York,” Stevenson said.

She said she is seeking a copy of that lawsuit that contains “illuminating information” regarding several big pharmaceutical companies, including Purdue Pharma. Stevenson said she has some further thought and work to put into the concept before presenting the idea to her board.

Waterbury alone has already had nearly 40 overdose deaths already this year. In January, David Knauf, Darien’s health director, said the misuse of prescription medication has become the number one cause of death from drug overdose in the country, and Connecticut is among the top 10 states for illicit drug dependence among young adults ages 18 to 25.

Following the meeting, Stevenson provided The Darien Times with more information regarding the suit.

The legal team working on the Waterbury, et al lawsuit is Drubner Hartley & Hellman, LLC and Simmons Hanly Conroy, LLC.

The Waterbury claim (suit) is against Purdue Pharma LP, Purdue Pharma Inc, The Purdue Frederick Company Inc, Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc., Cephalon Inc, Johnson & Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc, Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc, Janssen Pharmaceutica Inc., Endo Health Solutions Inc., Endo Pharmaceuticals Inc., Dr. Perry Fine, Dr. Scott Fishman and Dr. Lynn Webster – alleging that “these defendants have harmed the City of Waterbury and its residents through an aggressive marketing campaign that sought to, and did, change long-standing medical prescribing practices that dictated that opioids should only be used short-term or for terminal illnesses because of their highly addictive nature. The City’s complaint alleges that the defendants orchestrated a campaign that falsely presented opioids as safe and effective for long-term use for chronic pain, even though the defendants knew that the promotion of opioids for these purposes was not warranted and would lead directly to increased costs for patients, healthcare insurers and payers such as the City of  Waterbury.”

Stevenson said the hopeful outcome of the suit is not only a financial settlement to help reimburse municipalities for the extraordinary costs incurred fighting the opioid addiction epidemic, but also to have the defendants accountable to help with opioid education, treatment programs, prescriber education and any other outcomes the municipalities deem necessary and appropriate.

The law firms are working on a contingency basis only and will be reimbursed from any ultimate settlement.  No costs will be incurred by cities and towns.

In 2016, Lt. Jeremiah Marron of the Darien Police Department said while tough to compare statistics to determine whether Darien has a bigger opioid problem than its neighbors, “opiate addiction can be attributed to most of the crimes and cases we are dealing with.”

“We’re fighting the heroin and pill problem — we’re very aware there’s a prescription pill problem,” Marron told The Darien Times last year. Marron also pointed out the problem appears to be New England-wide and there hasn’t appeared to be any statistical reason why the problem is worse in that region.

From 2014 to 2015, heroin deaths increased by 27% in Connecticut and of the 723 people who died of an overdose in 2015, 415 were heroin related and another 107 were related to fentanyl, a powerful opiate that drug dealers have been lacing heroin with to make it more potent.

Experts point to the over-prescribing of opioids in 2012, noting 259 million prescriptions were written for opioids – enough to give every adult in the U.S. their own bottle of pills — as one of the leading causes of the current crisis.

Stevenson said in her own research she has noted other municipalities and states have taken similar action, including South Carolina, New Hampshire, Birmingham, Alabama and Cincinnati, Ohio.

Culpability on the part of big pharma can be attributed to what some consider deceptive marketing of opioid painkillers and settlements have been awarded in other cases.

In its June 2017 story, “Are Pharmaceutical Companies to Blame for the Opioid Epidemic?” The Atlantic noted “significant evidence that pharmaceutical companies may have engaged in some activities that led to the opioid crisis.”

The story mentioned a  Los Angeles Times investigation into Purdue Pharma, that found the drug maker, which marketed OxyContin as relieving pain for 12 hours, knew that the drug wore off before that time period. Since the drug didn’t last as long as promised, some patients suffered withdrawal, which led them to become addicted.

• Read the Los Angeles Times investigation: "You want a description of hell? Oxycontin's 12-hour problem" 

The story noted others that filed similar lawsuits, including Illinois, Mississippi, four counties in New York, and Santa Clara and Orange Counties in California, Everett, Washington, and the Cherokee Nation.

On Aug. 3, U.S.A.  Today reported that Insys Therapeutics Inc said it was taking a $4.5 million charge in connection with resolving a lawsuit by Illinois' attorney general claiming it deceptively marketed a fentanyl-based cancer pain drug for off-label uses.

It is difficult to determine how many actual overdoses in Darien, especially those that are treated and released, because hospitals don’t report those back to the towns from where they originate. They are recorded as accidental poisonings — a policy that Stevenson also hopes will change to become more accurately representative of an overdose incident.

Earlier this year, State Rep. Terrie Wood, who represents part of Darien and Rowayton,  introduced several pieces of state legislation regarding the distribution of opioids in Connecticut.

Wood said “two of them got rolled into the big bill on opioids. Rather than to do a batch of stand alone bills,  it is typical that all legislation relating to the same subject gets  rolled into one big bill.”

They were signed into law Thursday. These bills:

  • Create a process for patients to request they not be prescribed opioids.  
  • Prescribers ( doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants must discuss with patients risks associated with opioid use.  

One that didn’t pass would have required pill manufacturers to package opioids in blister packs, making them easier to keep track of and count. Wood said she hopes to have that pass next year.   

Stevenson has yet to ultimately make up her mind on whether she will recommend Darien join the lawsuit.

“There might be other ways other than litigation. We could encourage big pharma to partner to be part of the solution. I am not always in favor of litigation being the only way to go, but I want to keep an open mind,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson also said she welcomes feedback from Darien residents on the possible participation in the lawsuit. She can be reached at jstevenson@darienct.gov or 203-656-7338.