The county government is one among a flood of state and local authorities to pursue civil judgments for the alleged deceptive marketing of painkillers that they say fueled the heroin crisis.
By Matt Skoufalos | February 21, 2018
Amid a national wave of legal action against opioid manufacturers that lawmakers allege contrived a public health crisis and spurred heroin addiction, the Camden County government is suing the developers, manufacturers, and retailers of the drugs OxyContin and its derivatives.
“We’ve come to a point where we’re so desperate in trying to provide services to our residents, and at the same time we have such a lack of funds and support from the federal government, [that] now is the time for us to go after those who created this situation,” said Camden County Freeholder-Director Lou Cappelli.
In addition to driving opioid producers to stop manufacturing the drugs, Cappelli said the suit would seek to recover funds for addictions awareness and treatment programs, including those for physicians and medical students.
The suit names Purdue Pharma physician Richard Sackler, and the estates of Raymond and Mortimer Sackler, his late father and uncle, respectively.
It alleges that Purdue collectively, and the Sacklers individually, drove the over-prescription of OxyContin for all manner of pain management, even knowing its highly addictive qualities. It further charges the manufacturers, distributors, and retailers of the drugs as being complicit in the practice.
“Our approach is to identify those parties responsible for this particular drug, and add them to this suit, and take it to a new level by adding a RICO claim,” Cappelli said.
Legally, the approach is comparable to the Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) that governed the multi-state lawsuits against tobacco manufacturers in the mid-1990s. That action resulted in the $206-billion settlement that also dissolved tobacco industry groups and halted tobacco marketing to children.
Cappelli said the county lawsuit is distinguishable in strategy from the tobacco suits because it personally names the Sackler family in addition to various opioid manufacturers, distributors, and retailers.
“As far as we know, nobody has gone after this family so far,” Cappelli said. “This is something that really has an immediate effect and is much more dangerous than tobacco.”
Camden County is neither the first nor the only governmental jurisdiction to sue opioid manufacturers; according to The Clarion Ledger of Jackson, Mississippi, “every state attorney general has either filed a lawsuit against opioid makers or is involved in investigating whether these drugmakers misled health care providers about the addictiveness to opioids.”
More than 200 such suits are being managed by U.S. District Judge Dan Polster of Cleveland, Ohio under a multi-district litigation (MDL) statute; according to Reuters, Polster is looking for “a quick settlement” of the issue.
But Camden County is not part of that MDL action, which means that the defendants would have to broker their own settlement with the county or argue the case in court.
Who are the Sacklers?
Arthur Sackler, Raymond and Mortimer’s late brother, is widely credited with having conceived of modern-day pharmaceutical advertising.
An October 2017 New Yorker report by Patrick Radden Keefe describes Arthur Sackler’s marketing practices as being integrated with the publication of supportive quasi-research and spurious physician endorsements of his products as far back as the tranquilizer epidemic of the 1960s:
“As both a doctor and an adman, Arthur displayed a Don Draper-style intuition for the alchemy of marketing. He recognized that selling new drugs requires a seduction of not just the patient but the doctor who writes the prescription… So in selling new drugs he devised campaigns that appealed directly to clinicians, placing splashy ads in medical journals and distributing literature to doctors’ offices. Seeing that physicians were most heavily influenced by their own peers, he enlisted prominent ones to endorse his products, and cited scientific studies (which were often underwritten by the pharmaceutical companies themselves).”
The legacy of the Sackler family is further complicated by its historic and global philanthropy, which Keefe outlines as nothing short of legacy whitewashing.
Addictions awareness activist Patty DiRenzo of Blackwood said whatever amount of money the suit may recover from the Sacklers and their business partners isn’t enough to resolve “the devastation they caused.”
DiRenzo, who lost her son, Salvatore Marchese, to an overdose in 2010, spoke about the lasting grief her family has suffered from opioid abuse.
“They’re worth billions, the Sacklers,” she said.
“They need to do something. They created it.”
DiRenzo said she’d like to see money made available for drug counseling and treatment services, the overdose reversal drug naloxone, and physician education. She described how, after chipping a bone, her doctor prescribed OxyContin and argued with her when she refused the prescription.
“I said, ‘I don’t need that,'” DiRenzo said. “Why are they doing that? There needs to be education.”
Gloucester Township Mayor David Mayer was succinct in his condemnation of the defendants.
“When you ignite a fire, you must bear responsibility for extinguishing it,” Mayer said.
In addition to the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma, the Camden County RICO suit names:
- Abbott Laboratories
- Cephalon, Inc./Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Inc.
- Endo International plc
- Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (Johnson & Johnson)
- Insys Therapeutics, Inc.
- Mallinckrodt plc
- Cardinal Health
- Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc.
- Costco Wholesale Corporation
- Rite Aid Corporation
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