Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter has joined the ranks of state attorneys general who have sued manufacturers of opioid pain medication, alleging that deceptive marketing campaigns by the drug makers have fueled the state’s opioid epidemic.
On June 30 Hunter sued more than a dozen such drug manufacturers, alleging in the lawsuit that they “executed massive and unprecedented marketing campaigns through which they misrepresented the risks of addiction from their opioids and touted unsubstantiated benefits.”
“We believe these companies are culpable for the tragic, heartbreaking number of Oklahomans who have become addicted or who have died as a result of the opioid epidemic in our state,” Hunter said shortly after filing the lawsuit.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that opioids, including prescription painkillers, were factors in more than 33,000 deaths across the U.S. in 2015, and opioid overdoses have more than quadrupled since 2000.
Since 2009, Hunter said, more Oklahoma residents have died from opioid-related deaths than in vehicle crashes in the state. The lawsuit states that Oklahoma is one of the leading states in prescription painkiller sales per capita, with 128 painkiller prescriptions dispensed per 100 people in 2012.
“We just can’t let companies dehumanize the population,” Hunter said. “You almost feel like these deaths are just statistics on a spread sheet.”
Among other things, the lawsuit seeks an injunction against the manufacturers’ marketing practices and monetary damages that Hunter said he hopes will be dedicated to rehabilitation of opioid-addicted Oklahomans.
“We’ve got to invest more in rehabilitation in this state,” he said.
Hunter said former federal judge Michael Burrage, whose niece died from opioid-related causes in 2006, has been retained to prosecute the case on a contingency basis.
Although the lawsuit seeks damages for opioid-related costs, “it’s also about much more,” Burrage said. He said the ultimate goal of the lawsuit is “to change the behavior of these companies.”
“They need to be honest when they make representations to doctors about the effect of a drug. With opioids the doctors were lied to,” Burrage said.
Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman did not immediately schedule a hearing in the case.
The lawsuit is similar to one filed earlier in June by officials in Missouri. Hunter said lawsuits have also been filed against opioid manufacturers in Ohio and Mississippi.
In April, the Cherokee Nation sued distributors and retailers of opioids, alleging they contributed to “an epidemic of prescription opioid abuse.” The lawsuit alleged the companies created conditions in which “vast amounts of opioids have flowed freely from manufacturers to abusers and drug dealers” within the 14 northeastern Oklahoma counties that comprise the Cherokee Nation.
Last week, Hunter’s office filed five counts of second-degree murder against an Oklahoma doctor in the overdose deaths of at least five patients from the powerful painkillers and other drugs she prescribed.
Dr. Regan Nichols, 57, allegedly prescribed more than 3 million doses of controlled dangerous drugs from 2010-2014.
An investigator found that in 2010, Nichols prescribed one 47-year-old patient a total of 450 painkillers, muscle relaxants and anti-anxiety drugs. The patient died six days later.
Online court records do not indicate whether Nichols has entered a plea to the charges. Her attorneys, Thomas Adler II and Dan Good, did not immediately return telephone calls seeking comment.