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L.A. sues 9 drug companies, alleging unethical practices that worsened the opioid crisis

L.A. sues 9 drug companies, alleging unethical practices that worsened the opioid crisis
City Atty. Mike Feuer announces a civil lawsuit Thursday against six leading opioid drug manufacturers and three wholesale distributors alleging "fraudulent and negligent business practices." (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The city of Los Angeles accused top drugmakers and distributors Thursday of fueling the nation's opioid epidemic by engaging in deceptive marketing aimed at boosting sales of powerful, addictive painkillers such as OxyContin, methadone and fentanyl.

In a 165-page lawsuit filed in federal court, the city sued six of the largest manufacturers and the top three distributors of prescription painkillers, alleging violations of federal laws in creating a public nuisance, negligence and misrepresentation. Additionally, the city said the drug companies violated the anti-racketeering laws typically used to target gangsters.

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City Atty. Mike Feuer said that prescription drug manufacturers and distributors encouraged doctors to prescribe potent painkillers for chronic, long-term pain and downplayed the addictive nature of the drugs. The drugmakers also failed to report suspicious sales, he said.

Feuer said that although Los Angeles has not been hit by the opioid crisis as hard as rural areas have, the city still feels its effects.

"I will not let Los Angeles become the next West Virginia or Ohio when it comes to the devastating effects of the opioid crisis," he said at a City Hall news conference.

Feuer said he was filing the lawsuit to hold the drug firms accountable for driving the opioid epidemic and the "significant impacts of their reckless and irresponsible business practices."

Los Angeles is joining hundreds of municipalities across the country in an ongoing effort to make the drug companies pay for their roles in fueling an opioid addiction crisis.

A federal judge in Ohio has consolidated more than 350 lawsuits filed by various cities, counties and states against makers and distributors of opioid painkillers in an effort to reach a global settlement.

Mayor Eric Garcetti said more people died in L.A. last year from overdoses than in homicides. The rise of the opioid crisis can be seen on the sidewalks, under bridges and on skid row, he added.

"People become addicts on the streets of our city," Garcetti said. "We see the number of tents beginning to multiply around Los Angeles over the last few years. We know ... the reason many stay out there is their addiction and their inability to break that cycle."

L.A.'s civil lawsuit names Purdue Pharma, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Cephalon, Insys Therapeutics and Mallinckrodt. The complaint alleges that the companies borrowed from the "tobacco industry's playbook" by using false and deceptive marketing and business practices to boost opioid sales.

The firms sought to "shift the way in which doctors and patients think about pain, specifically, to encourage the use of opioids to treat ... the masses who suffer from common chronic pain conditions," the suit says.

The lawsuit also targets the so-called middlemen — wholesale distributors including McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen — saying they failed to report suspiciously large and frequent orders of prescription pain pills as required by state and federal law.

The Healthcare Distribution Alliance, the national trade association representing wholesale distributors, including the three named in the suit, said distributors are not to blame for the addiction epidemic.

"The idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated," John Parker, senior vice president of communications for the alliance, said in a statement. "Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation."

In a statement, a Mallinckrodt spokeswoman said the company is "deeply committed to regulatory compliance and maintains industry-leading controls around the sale of its opioid products."

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Rhonda Sciarra, the Mallinckrodt spokeswoman, said the firm sells generic, non-promoted opioids and is limited in its manufacturing to strict quotas established by the Drug Enforcement Administration. Additionally, the company is a strong proponent of prescription drug monitoring programs, Sciarra said.

Doris Saltkill, a spokeswoman for Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, which acquired Cephalon in 2011, said the company is committed to the appropriate use of opioid medicines and recognizes the impact of opioid abuse on communities.

Among the steps the company is taking to address the problem, "we are developing non-opioid treatments that have the potential to bring relief to patients in chronic pain," Saltkill said.

The lawsuit cites a 2016 Times investigation showing that Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, knew a MacArthur Park doctor prescribed more than 73,000 OxyContin pills, with a street value of nearly $6 million, in four months. The manufacturers and distributor suspected that the doctor was running a corrupt pharmacy and peddling prescription painkillers, but they did not cut off her supply, The Times reported.

As a result, "1.1 million pills had spilled into the hands of Armenian mobsters, the Crips gang and other criminals," the investigation found.

Purdue, Janssen, Endo and Insys did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday's lawsuit.

Twitter: @AngelJennings

UPDATES:

4:15 p.m.: This article was updated with reaction and additional details from the lawsuit.

This article was originally published at 1 p.m.

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