Cranley: Cincinnati should sue opioid makers amid heroin crisis

CINCINNATI -- Mayor John Cranley says Cincinnati is poised to join other Ohio cities that are taking legal aim against the country’s top makers of prescription opioids.

The city of Dayton this week sued more than 20 opioid drug makers, distributors and doctors.

The lawsuit alleges that deceptive marketing by drug makers and distributors and unethical prescribing practices by physicians sparked the surging rate of painkiller addiction and overdoses.

"The heroin epidemic was no accident," said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, a democrat who is also running for governor. "These big drug companies have destroyed too many lives, broken too many families and done so much damage to our communities.”

The city of Lorain has filed a similar lawsuit, and both follow a legal battle launched last week by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine against the country’s top five largest opioid makers.

Cranley said he’s been working with the city’s solicitor office for “months” to explore similar legal actions.

“We thought we were going to be ready by now but the lawyer we talked to for several months told us at the last minute that he had a conflict,” Cranley said. “Just as Mike Dewine and Nan Whaley did ... we intend to get involved as well.”

Dayton’s suit is seeking to recover the city’s costs of responding to the epidemic including increased spending on  law enforcement, paramedics and a host of community programs.

Already this year, Dayton has logged more than 1,800 calls for emergency and police responses to suspected overdoses, according to the city. Dayton has already surpassed the amount Narcan used in all of 2016 by more than 50 percent.

"This is about justice for our communities. Justice for our taxpayers. Justice for the families who have lost a loved one,” Whaley said Monday at a press conference held to announce the filing. “And justice for the people and families who are struggling with addiction right now."

In Hamilton County, more than 221 overdose deaths from opioids are suspected already this year, according the county coroner. Narcan use by first responders is climbing as well, with nearly 3,000 doses administered in 2015, compared to 2,000 in 2015.

"It’s hard to quantify” the total amount that the city has spent to battle the epidemic, Cranley said. 

“When you add in the amount of time our firefighters and cops are spending on (overdose calls), versus proactive policing and going after gun violence: millions and millions of dollars,” he said.

Whether the lawsuits prove successful remain to be seen. Some say the cases are similar to the legal arguments launched against the tobacco industry in the 1990s that resulted in a more than $206 billion payout to states.

"There are significant parallels," said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, executive director of Physicians for Responsible Opioids Prescribing, a national nonprofit.

"You had the tobacco industry claiming that nicotine was not addictive," Kolodny said. "Similarly, we've seen opioids promoted for use for daily, long-term chronic pain as if they are safe and effective, and the risk of addiction was grossly minimized. There is no question that marketing practices of opiate manufacturers have led to this public health crisis, in the similar way that marketing of tobacco led to thousands and thousands of deaths from lung cancer."

But some experts warn that comparisons between the lawsuits against big pharma and big tobacco are a big stretch.

"Opioids aren't aren't an inherently evil product," James Tierney, a former Maine attorney general who worked with tobacco companies in the 1990s, told the Wall Street Journal last week. "Tobacco companies could never come in and say tobacco products are good for you. There are legitimate purposes for opioids."

In Cincinnati, Cranely couldn’t say Tuesday just how soon the city might be prepared to pursue litigation.

But he did say it will be ‘(s)ooner rather than later."

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