The number of deaths related to overuse of narcotic painkillers is skyrocketing in Michigan and across the United States. But could the opioid crisis really come down to a consumer protection problem? The county executives of Oakland and Wayne Counties think so, and they’re taking their theory to court.
Wayne County Executive Warren Evans and Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson recently came together to file a unique lawsuit in federal district court. They have sued a dozen drug manufacturers and distributors for violations of the Michigan Consumer Protection Act, the Racketeer Influence and Corruption Organization Act (RICO), and other claims.
Michigan’s Opioid Crisis
Between 1999 and 2015, over 183,000 people died from overdoses of prescription opioids. In 2015, over that included 500 people in Wayne County and 33 people in Oakland County. That was a 267% increase for Oakland County, which had only had 9 deaths in 2009. In 2016, Wayne County’s numbers had jumped another 61% to 817 opioid-related deaths.
Opioids, including OxyContin and Fentanyl, are highly addictive and overdoses can easily turn lethal. Still, they are highly prescribed. In 2016, Michigan doctors wrote roughly 11 million opioid prescriptions, more than one for every resident of the state. Many people originally prescribed opioids for medical purposes become so addicted they turn to illegal drug use after their prescriptions run out.
The opioid epidemic has become so severe, that in August 2017, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder created the Council on Opioid and Prescription Drug Enforcement. The Council was tasked to work with the Attorney General’s office, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan to combat the pervasive use of opioids.
How Drug Use Can Be a Consumer Protection Issue
According to the lawsuit, the drug manufacturers used deceptive marketing and sales tactics to change the way doctors and patients think about chronic pain, encouraging the widespread prescription of opioid painkillers. Lead Counsel, E. Powell Miller, of Miller Law Firm, told Crain’s Detroit Business:
“There was a concerted and tragically successful effort to get more doctors to prescribe these drugs while distorting the conversation about addiction.”
The complaint follows in the footsteps of extensive litigation against the tobacco industry in the 1980s and 1990s. Crain’s reports:
“We want to do to the opioid manufacturers and distributors the same thing we did 30-40 years ago to the tobacco industry,” Patterson said. “We see that they really have taken a page out of the tobacco era — false advertising, false claims, people becoming dependent on these drugs without the fair notice of what could happen to their lives.”
Still, when it comes to opioids, the Michigan case is the first of its kind. Miller reports that there are over 100 similar lawsuits across the country, but few that come at the issue from a consumer protection angle. The complaint says that as a result of the drug manufacturers’ deceptive marketing practices, the counties have suffered significant financial consequences in the form of increased law enforcement, court, jail, emergency, and medical costs, as well as public works and substance abuse treatment plans.
The consumer protection litigation is an innovative approach to a growing problem here in Michigan, and across the country. If the courts agree that the drug manufacturers used deceptive business practices to inflate the demand for their products it could change the way pain management and drug treatment more broadly are handled here in Michigan and across the country.