A downstate county has filed a lawsuit against Chicago-area Abbott Laboratories for allegedly pushing prescriptions pain pills despite knowing the drugs posed serious health risks.
St. Clair County, which covers East St. Louis, claims it is in the center of an opioid addiction epidemic that has plagued the Midwest, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday in state court.
The suit cites data from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that shows more than 9 million oxycodone and hydrocodone pills were sold in St. Clair County in 2014 — the most recent year available.
That comes out to 34 pills per St. Clair County resident, 20 times the national average, according to the suit.
“We’ve been dealing with this opioid crisis, this heroin crisis, for a number of years now, and I have to be frank, I’m not sure we’re winning,” said St. Clair State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly.
He said part of the reason they’ve failed to make progress is because they’re working against pharmaceutical companies “that market these products, that profit from these products.”
Abbott, which is headquartered near Waukegan, made Vicodin and other opioids until 2013, when it spun most of its drugs into a separate company called AbbVie.
The lawsuit also names Purdue Pharma, which is based in Connecticut and makes the well-known pain-reliever Oxycontin and other drugs, as a plaintiff.
“They have a role to play in this. They’ve played a tremendously negative role up to this point, and they have an opportunity, I hope, to become part of the solution rather than part of the problem,” Kelly said.
A spokeswoman for Abbott declined to comment because the company had not yet seen the lawsuit.
In an emailed statement, Purdue Pharma spokesman John Puskar said OxyContin was just a sliver of the painkiller market.
“We share public officials’ concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions,” Puskar said. “We are an industry leader in the development of abuse-deterrent technology and advocating for the use of prescription drug monitoring programs.”
The lawsuit claims Abbott and Purdue knew opioids were dangerous and addictive, but still aggressively marketed them for unsafe use.
“Defendants, through a sophisticated and highly deceptive and unfair marketing campaign that began in the late 1990s, deepened around 2006, and continues to the present, set out to, and did, reverse the popular and medical understanding of opioids,” according to the suit.
Kelly said the companies used money, deceit and collusion to create a climate where doctors felt it was their duty to prescribe powerful painkillers to suffering patients.
The result, the suit claims, has been a dramatic increase in opioid prescriptions in St. Clair County and throughout the country.
“[That] has resulted in a population of addicts who seek drugs from doctors. When turned down by one physician, many of these addicts deploy increasingly desperate tactics — including doctor-shopping, use of aliases, and criminal means — to satisfy their cravings, cravings which Defendants first fostered then fueled.”
Kelly said no part of St. Clair County has been spared.
“People of all ages and all walks of life are dying of heroin overdoses, they’re dying of Fentanyl overdoses, and almost without exception, almost without exception, that path to lying on the floor with a medic trying to revive you…begins with the abuse of prescription opioids,” Kelly said.
Besides trying to stop the alleged marketing scheme, the lawsuit also seeks to recoup costs incurred by the county.
Some of those costs are allegedly because of an increase in overdoses and drug-related crimes. But, the suit also claims the amount the county spends on prescription opioids and addiction treatment for employees insured by the county has gone up.
Patrick Smith is a WBEZ producer and reporter. Follow him @pksmid.