Government & Politics

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley files lawsuit against opioid manufacturers

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley filed a lawsuit Wednesday against three of the largest manufacturers of opioids, accusing the companies of violating Missouri’s consumer protection laws.

The complaint, which was filed in St. Louis, calls opioid abuse an epidemic in Missouri that is a “direct result of a carefully crafted campaign of deception” by the pharmaceutical companies that “fraudulently misrepresented the risks posed by the drugs that they manufacture and sell, misleading both doctors and consumers.”

The companies targeted in the civil suit are Endo Pharmaceuticals, Purdue Pharma, which manufactures OxyContin, and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, which is owned by Johnson & Johnson.

Hawley, a Republican, said that these companies were chosen because his office is “confident about the evidence we have about their fraud” and because they make up “the lion’s share” of the opioid market.

The complaint does not specify a dollar amount the state is seeking, but Hawley said the suit would be one of the largest in the state’s history.

“We will seek hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and hundreds of millions more in civil penalties,” Hawley said.

He said his hope is that the money will go toward drug rehabilitation and other services for families impacted by addiction.

The lawsuit states that roughly 500 people in Missouri died from non-heroin opioid overdoses in 2015 alone and that thousands more have to go to the hospital for opioid abuse each year.

“Thousands and tens of thousands of Missourians are suffering,” he said. “I’ve talked to families who have lost teenagers to drug overdoses. I’ve talked to folks who have struggled as adults.”

In Missouri, about 9 out of 100,000 people died from opioid-related causes in 2014, compared with the national average of about 6 per 100,000, according to data from the Missouri Department of Mental Health.

Stephen Mock, the vice president for investor relations and corporate affairs at Endo, said in an email that the Pennsylvania-based company has a policy not to comment on current litigation. He did comment more broadly on concerns about opioid abuse.

“At Endo, our top priorities include patient safety and ensuring that patients with chronic pain have access to safe and effective therapeutic options. We share in the FDA’s goal of appropriately supporting the needs of patients with chronic pain while preventing misuse and diversion of opioid products,” Mock said.

Jessica Castles Smith, the spokeswoman for New Jersey-based Janssen, said in an email that the company has “acted appropriately, responsibly and in the best interests of patients regarding our opioid pain medications, which are FDA-approved and carry FDA-mandated warnings about the known risks of the medications on every product label.”

“At Janssen, we put the needs and well-being of the patients, caregivers and families we serve first. More than 100 million American adults suffer from chronic pain, a significant public health problem that places a tremendous emotional and financial burden on patients and their families. Our opioid pain medications give doctors and patients important choices to help manage the debilitating effects of chronic pain,” she said.

John Puskar, the spokesman for Connecticut-based Purdue, said in an email that the company vigorously denies the allegations in the complaint but shares “the attorney general’s concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions.”

“OxyContin accounts for less than 2% of the opioid analgesic prescription market nationally, but we are an industry leader in the development of abuse-deterrent technology, advocating for the use of prescription drug monitoring programs and supporting access to Naloxone — all important components for combating the opioid crisis,” Puskar said.

Missouri is the only state in the nation without a statewide prescription drug monitoring program.

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, launched an investigation into the industry earlier this year. McCaskill’s probe extends to two of the companies named in Hawley’s lawsuit, Purdue Pharma and Janssen.

Hawley, who has been rumored to be weighing a run against McCaskill, said he has not spoken to the senator about his parallel efforts to hold the industry accountable.

McCaskill called opioid addiction the state’s “biggest public health crisis” in a phone call Wednesday and said she “would certainly welcome the opportunity to work with anyone who is fighting opioids” when asked about Hawley’s lawsuit.

But McCaskill also called on the attorney general to “spend some time working on the legislature” to help resolve Missouri’s lack of a statewide monitoring program. McCaskill said this serves as a “welcome mat” for heroin dealers. She said the state should hold a special legislative session to resolve the issue.

Hawley said that he would defer to the governor and lawmakers about whether new legislation is needed.

Hawley is one of several state attorneys general to pursue legal action against opioid manufacturers. States launched similar lawsuits against the tobacco companies in the 1990s, resulting in a master settlement that requires a portion of the tobacco companies’ profits to go to states each year.

Mississippi’s attorney general was the first to file a lawsuit in 2015, while Ohio’s attorney general filed a similar case last month. Attorneys general in several other states have also launched probes into the industry.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt’s office said that it could “not confirm or deny participation” in a multistate investigation into opioids.

Hawley said that his suit had not been coordinated with anyone else. Asked about the decision to file the suit in St. Louis, Hawley noted that nearly half of all opioid-related hospitalizations in the state take place in the St. Louis area.

His office filed the suit in state court because he believes the state’s consumer protection laws offer the best tools.

“We have laws that prohibit exactly the kind of things that these companies are doing, so what we need now is for the law to be enforced,” he said.

When asked about the amount of resources his offices would devote to the matter, Hawley said he was ready to commit all 200 attorneys in his office to the case if necessary.

The complaint lists 10 attorneys’ names in addition to Hawley’s.

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3