JBE signs opioid bill 061217

Gov. John Bel Edwards signs on Monday, June 12, 2017, legislation to combat the state's opioid addiction crisis.

Advocate Photo by Rebekah Allen

Louisiana joined a growing list of state and local governments Wednesday by taking legal action claiming drug manufacturers purposely escalated an opioid crisis that has led to thousands of overdose deaths in the state.

The petition claims “drug manufacturers undertook an orchestrated campaign to flood Louisiana with highly addictive and dangerous opioids in an effort to maximize profits above the health and well-being of their customers, including the healthcare systems supporting those customers.”

Lawyers from the Louisiana Department of Health and the Governor’s Office filed the lawsuit at the 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge.

Similar lawsuits have been filed recently by state governments in Mississippi, Illinois and West Virginia, as well as other by local governments in New York, California and Washington state.

Lawsuits were also filed last week by sheriffs' offices in Avoyelles, Lafayette, Jefferson Davis and Rapides parishes.

A key defendant among 16 drug manufacturers named in the Louisiana lawsuit, as well as in other states, is Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin.

“These drug companies led prescribers to believe that opioids were not addictive and even suggested that treating physicians prescribe greater dosage units to those who had already become addicted to opioids,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a statement.

The argument goes that once the prescriptions ran out and the legal opioids became harder to get, a number of people turned to lower-costing illegal drugs, such as heroin, to feed their addiction. Overdose deaths across Louisiana — including in Baton Rouge and New Orleans — outnumbered homicides for the first time in 2016.

“As evident by the hundreds of Louisiana families that have lost loved ones due to this crisis, nothing could be further from the truth,” Edwards said. “We intend to hold these pharmaceutical companies responsible for the lasting damage they have caused upon our people and the millions of dollars their wrongful claims have cost our state.”

The state is also seeking damages for the amounts it has already paid for excessive opioid prescriptions and treatment costs as a result of those prescriptions.

The legal actions are similar to the litigation that in 1998 led the tobacco industry to enter into the largest settlement in U.S. history. Louisiana uses interest off the proceeds of the tobacco settlement to help pay TOPS, the popular government grant that covers most tuition costs at state colleges and universities.

State attorneys general had sued tobacco companies, arguing that the companies should take up the burden of paying for the costs of treating smoking-related diseases.

Dr. Rebekah Gee, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health, said the state is fighting the opioid epidemic “by all means necessary.”

But the governor’s action didn’t include Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who represents the state in most matters.

“We were made aware of this lawsuit after it was filed and will make no further comment until after we have had the opportunity to fully evaluate the merits of the lawsuit,” Landry said.

“I have made ending the opioid epidemic a top priority for my office,” Landry added. “From educating the public to providing first responders with Naloxone and from leading drug take back efforts to joining other state attorneys general in multi-state litigation, we have been doing all we legally can to protect Louisiana and its people.”

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