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Fort Lauderdale Takes on Purdue Pharma, Walgreens, CVS, McKesson, and Others Over Opioid Crisis

"Within the next hour, six Americans will die from opioid overdoses; two babies will be born dependent on opioids and begin to go through withdrawal; and drug manufacturers will earn over $2.7 million from the sale of opioids," lawyers for the City of Fort Lauderdale wrote in a federal lawsuit filed November 20 against Purdue Pharma and a litany of other pharmaceutical companies. They allege the companies' corporate greed contributed to the costly opioid crisis plaguing the city.

"The opioid epidemic was caused by the malicious conduct of Defendants motivated by the corporate need for ever greater profit. Fort Lauderdale brings this suit in order to force Defendants to share in shouldering the costs with which they have burdened the City," the 314-page complaint states.

Across the United States, opioid-related deaths have skyrocketed. One of the main catalysts behind the nationwide opioid epidemic was the spread of OxyContin, a time-released oxycodone pill created by Purdue Pharma and aggressively marketed as a safe, nonaddictive solution to chronic pain. In 2007, the federal government brought criminal charges against Purdue Pharma for deceptive advertising practices, charging the company and three top executives with "misleading and defrauding physicians and consumers." They pled guilty and agreed to pay over $600 million. Executives were sentenced to probation.

South Florida is not immune to the countrywide crisis. In 2016, 582 people died from opioid overdoses in Broward County — more than ten people per week — according to the county Medical Examiner's Office. As a result, Fort Lauderdale, the most populated city in the county, has had to "spend vast funds on a wide range of services to fight the opioid epidemic's staggering, unanticipated, and far-reaching effects," the lawsuit contends.

Lawyers for the city, who declined to comment on the suit, say the companies created a public nuisance.

“We share the city’s concern about the opioid crisis," a spokesperson for Purdue Pharma said in a statement emailed to New Times. "While Purdue Pharma’s opioid medicines account for less than 2% of total prescriptions, we will continue to work collaboratively with the city toward bringing meaningful solutions to address this public health challenge. We vigorously deny the city’s allegations."

Fort Lauderdale joins about 250 other cities, counties, and states that have filed lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors for igniting the opioid crisis. Earlier this year, in April, Miami filed a civil lawsuit against Purdue Pharma and others in Miami-Dade County Court. Broward and Palm Beach Counties have sued as well.

In particular, lawyers for the City of Fort Lauderdale are taking aim at the deceptive marketing practices that help spread the sale of the highly addictive drug and the supply chain that fueled the crisis — a web of manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacies that not only failed to maintain effective controls over the distribution of prescription opioids, but actively sought to evade such controls.

"Through a massive marketing campaign premised on false and incomplete information, the Marketing Defendants... relentlessly and methodically, but untruthfully, asserted that the risk of addiction was low when opioids were used to treat chronic pain, and overstated the benefits and trivialized the risk of the long-term use of opioids," the lawsuit alleges.

The goal was to dramatically increase sales by convincing doctors to prescribe opioids as often as possible, despite the fact that marketers were aware the opioids they were peddling were highly addictive.

And it worked. Opioid sales generate billions of dollars in revenue for drug companies each year. Since 1999, the number of prescription opioids sold in the United States has nearly quadrupled. "In 2016, 289 million prescriptions for opioids were filled in the United States — enough to medicate every adult in America around the clock for a month," the lawsuit states.

Meanwhile, companies such as Walgreens, CVS, and the McKesson Corporation, a company that paid $150 million after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found it failed to report suspicious orders of certain drugs in 2017, also contributed substantially to the opioid crisis, the lawsuit says. They allegedly did this by "selling and distributing far greater quantities of prescription opioids than they know could be necessary for legitimate medical uses while failing to report, and to take steps to halt, suspicious orders when they were identified, thereby exacerbating the oversupply of such drugs and fueling an illegal secondary market," the lawsuit contends.

Florida also recently sued Walgreens and CVS, which have paid large fines to resolve DEA allegations that pharmacists filled fake prescriptions for opioids and other drugs. McKesson was also named in the suit. The firms have denied the claims.  

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