CINCINNATI -- Ohio's lawsuit against the top U.S. drug makers of prescription opioids is taking a page from the legal playbooks litigators used in the '90s to take on big tobacco and win.
On Wednesday, Ohio joined a growing list of states and communities that are taking aim at makers of prescription opioids, alleging that deceptive marketing practices have fueled the country's pain pill addiction epidemic.
The lawsuit says Purdue Pharma, Endo Health Solutions, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and its subsidiary Cephalon, Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals, and Allergan violated the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act and created a "public nuisance."
The drug companies, he said, "put profits above the health and wellbeing of Ohio consumers" by "flooding the market with misleading information about the risks and benefits of prescription opioids, including OxyContin, Percocet and others."
The result has been a "human tragedy of epic proportions," DeWine said, noting that Ohio saw an 36 percent increase in unintentional overdose deaths from opioids last year.
In the lawsuit, DeWine compares the drug makers to "big tobacco," alleging that "like the tobacco companies, defendants used third parties that they funded, directed and controlled to carry out and conceal their scheme to deceive doctors and patients about the risks and benefits of longterm opioid use for chronic pain."
DeWine's comparisons hit home among groups that have long called for tighter prescribing guidelines for opioids.
"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."
Nearly 20 years ago, U.S. tobacco companies agreed to pay states $206 billion to settle claims that they misled consumers about the dangers of smoking cigarettes. The case marked the largest civil settlement in the country's history, and was initiated by a 1994 lawsuit filed by Mississippi's attorney general.
Although Ohio is the largest state to target opioid makers, it is only the second to sue drug makers so far. Mississippi was the first, filing its lawsuit in October.
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 this week. "Tobacco companies could never come in and say tobacco products are good for you. There are legitimate purposes for opioids."
In the lawsuit, Ohio is seeking damages for public money spent on fighting opioid addiction and overdoses.
"This lawsuit is about justice. It's about fairness. It's about what is right," DeWine said. "It is just and it is right that the people who played a significant role in creating this mess in the state of Ohio should pay to clean it up."