Ohio sues five drug companies over opioid crisis

(Reuters) - The state of Ohio on Wednesday sued five major drug manufacturers, accusing them of misrepresenting the risks of prescription opioid painkillers that have fueled a sky-rocketing drug addiction epidemic.

A used needle sits on the ground in a park in Lawrence, Massachusetts, U.S., May 30, 2017, where individuals were arrested earlier in the day during raids to break up heroin and fentanyl drug rings in the region, according to law enforcement officials. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The suit, filed by Attorney General Mike DeWine, comes as a growing number of state and local governments are suing drugmakers and distributors, seeking to hold them accountable for a deadly and costly opioid crisis.

Opioid drugs, including prescription painkillers and heroin, killed more than 33,000 people in the United States in 2015, more than any year on record, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The five companies Ohio sued were Purdue Pharma LP, Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc unit, a unit of Endo International Plc, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd’s Cephalon unit and Allergan Plc.

DeWine said the companies helped unleash the crisis by spending millions of dollars marketing and promoting such drugs as OxyContin and Percocet, overstating their benefits and trivializing their potential addictive qualities.

“These companies continue to mislead the public,” DeWine said at a press conference in Columbus.

Janssen spokesman Jessica Castles Smith said in an emailed statement: “The allegations in this lawsuit are both legally and factually unfounded.”

She said Janssen has acted responsibly regarding its opioid pain medications, which are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and carry FDA-mandated warnings on their labels about the drugs’ known risks.

Purdue said in an emailed statement: “We share the attorney general’s concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions.”

Allergan and Teva declined to comment. Endo could not immediately be reached.

The suit, filed in Ross County, in Southern Ohio, where addiction has hit hard, alleges the drug companies violated the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act, committed Medicaid fraud, and created a public nuisance by disseminating false and misleading statements.

It seeks to halt deceptive practices, a declaration the companies acted illegally and unspecified damages to the state and consumers.

In Ohio, which has one of the nation’s highest overdose rates, 4,169 people died from overdoses last year, according to figures compiled by the Columbus Dispatch.

Last year, 2.3 million Ohio residents were prescribed opioids, nearly a fifth of the state’s population, in turn helping fuel heroin abuse, DeWine said.

Drug companies including Purdue and Johnson & Johnson have been fighting lawsuits by two California counties, the city of Chicago, four counties in New York and the state of Mississippi over their opioid marketing practices.

Several West Virginia counties have filed lawsuits in recent months against drug wholesalers McKesson Corp, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen for failing to report suspicious orders of opioids in the state.

West Virginia’s attorney general earlier reached settlements with Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen for a combined $36 million to resolve similar claims.

Reporting by Chris Kenning in Chicago; Additional reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and James Dalgleish