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UPDATE: Northern California Tribe Sues Drug Companies for Opioid Epidemic

The suit alleges corruption and false advertising by prescription drug manufacturers and distributors. Representatives of distributors say that they are not the "root cause" of the issue.

Posted: Mar. 13, 2018 12:41 PM
Updated: Mar. 14, 2018 12:18 PM

KLAMATH, Calif. — The Yurok Tribe of the Klamath River basin in California has filed suit in federal court against 20 major pharmaceutical companies. The case alleges corrupt practices by drug companies which contributed to widespread misuse of opioid painkillers in communities—such as the tribe itself.

According to the lawsuit, the 20 defendants violated a 1970 law known as the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The tribe claims that drug companies systematically concealed the dangers of opioid drugs—engaging in false advertising, public nuisance, and unlawful, unfair, and fraudulent business practices.

"It is clear that we as a nation have been sold a bill of goods as it relates to opiate painkillers. These drugs have caused so much unnecessary heartache as well as the untimely deaths of many Native American and non-Indian people. The companies that produce, marker and distribute them need to be held accountable," said Amy Cordalis, the Yurok Tribe's General Counsel. Cordalis is a member of the tribe herself.

The defendants of the lawsuit include Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson, among other notable drug manufacturers and distributors.

Humboldt and Del Norte counties in California were hit early and hard by opioid addiction, according to a statement from the tribe. The tribe has seen overdose rates and inquiries for addiction treatment skyrocket over the last decade.

"There is not a single Yurok family that has not either directly or indirectly experienced the horrors of opiate addiction," said Cordalis.

The Yurok Tribe is not alone in suing drug companies for the explosion in opiate addiction. Cities, counties, and municipalities across the country have filed individual lawsuits against drug companies—including New York City, the New York Times reports.

Representatives of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance (HDA), a national trade association representing pharmaceutical distributors—including AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson, all named in the lawsuit—reached out to NewsWatch 12 with their take on the issue.

"The misuse and abuse of prescription opioids is a complex public health challenge that requires a collaborative and systemic response that engages all stakeholders," said John Parker, Senior Vice President of HDA. "Given our role, 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."

Medical distributors do not manufacture, prescribe, or drive demand in drugs, according to an HDA spokesperson. Moreover, the distribution of pharmaceuticals falls under the strict regulation of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Only the DEA has the authority to set the annual production of controlled substances in the market.

"Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation," said Parker.

According to the HDA spokesperson, part of the answer may be greater communication and coordination with the DEA. This would support more rapid response against abuse and diversion of prescription drugs.

In Oregon, both Governor Kate Brown and Representative Greg Walden (R-Hood River) have spearheaded efforts to combat the opioid crisis.

Governor Brown championed House Bill 4143, which passed in the first week of March, 2018 to unanimous bipartisan support. The bill would requisition the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services to study barriers to effective treatment and recovery from substance use. HB 4143 now awaits only Governor Brown’s signature.

Representative Walden led a hearing in Washington D.C. at the end of February, 2018, attempting to address means for combating the opioid crisis, primarily from a law enforcement standpoint.

The Yurok Tribe made news recently after reacquiring lands around the Blue Creek Watershed, a vital salmon habitat within the Klamath River Basin. They are the largest federally recognized Indian tribe in California.

(Article updated 3/14/18 with a response from the Healthcare Distribution Alliance)

CDC Data on the Opioid Epidemic:

  • The majority of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. involve an opioid—66 percent.
  • In 2016, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids was 5 times higher than in 1999.
  • From 2000 to 2016, more than 600,000 people died from drug overdoses.
  • On average, 115 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.

CLICK HERE  for more info from the CDC, including addiction/overdose prevention steps, and information on what patients prescribed opiates can do to reduce the possible risks.

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