Joining a growing number of municipal and state governments, Baton Rouge filed federal a lawsuit Tuesday blaming drug makers and distributors for the national opioid crisis — a crisis that has spread to the Capital City.
East Baton Rouge Parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome announced the lawsuit Tuesday alongside a group of law enforcement and addiction and legal experts. Baton Rouge had 89 deadly overdoses related to opioids in 2017, and the number could grow after reviewing a few outstanding toxicology reports from the end of last year, parish Coroner Dr. Beau Clark said.
A number of municipalities across the nation have filed lawsuits against drug makers that have been alleged responsible for the crisis. Louisiana's Department of Health has filed a separate lawsuit against multiple pharmaceutical companies as well.
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"The residents of Baton Rouge continue to bear the burden of the cost of the epidemic," Broome said at a news conference.
Those costs include medical care for people addicted to opioids, treatment of infants born addicted to the drugs, law enforcement responding to calls about overdoses and caring for children of drug-addicted parents, according to the lawsuit. Additionally, City Hall's health insurance and worker's compensation policies have covered the costs of prescription opiates without the patients knowing how addictive those drugs could be, according to the lawsuit.
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The lawsuit alleges the pharmaceutical companies knew all along how problematic opioids could be, but they pressured doctors to prescribe them and reaped the benefits through sales. The pharmaceutical companies named in Baton Rouge's lawsuit manufacture drugs that include OxyContin, actiq, fentora, fentanyl, tapentadol, Percocet, oxycodone, hydrocodone, Norco and kadian.
Though the opioid and heroin crises are often thought of as happening illegally, the addictions often begin when someone is legally prescribed a painkiller, Clark said. The lawsuit says the CDC identifies addictions of prescription pain medications — usually opioids — as the strongest risk factor for heroin addictions. And when someone who is addicted can no longer receive pain medications through a doctor, that's when he or she often turns to finding the drugs on the streets.
Distribution companies, also named in the suit, were supposed to monitor the usage of opioids. But the lawsuit points to the high numbers of people taking the drugs, and says distributors failed to do their duty to raise red flags about how widespread they were.
"These pharmaceutical companies aggressively advertised to and persuaded doctors to prescribe highly addictive, dangerous opioids, turning patients into drug addicts for their own corporate profit," Baton Rouge's lawsuit reads.
Louisiana ranked fifth in the country in 2016 for its opioid prescription rate, which exceeded 98 prescriptions for every 100 people. Neonatal abstinence syndrome also quadrupled in Louisiana between 2003 and 2013, according to the lawsuit.
And in Baton Rouge, fatal overdoses outnumbered homicides in 2016, the lawsuit says. By late 2017, paramedics from Emergency Medical Services administered 737 doses of naloxone, meant to reverse opioid overdoses.
Baton Rouge Police Chief Murphy Paul said at the news conference that the Police Department responded to an overdose this week where a mother had a child in a vehicle with her and now the state has to care for the child.
"There's an opioid prescription for every man, woman and child in our parish for nine years," attorney Burton LeBlanc said at Tuesday's news conference. LeBlanc represents Baron & Budd law firm and said he is the counsel of record for 200 similar opioid cases across the country. None has gone to trial yet.
Broome emphasized at the news conference that no taxpayer dollars will go toward the lawsuit. The suit requests attorney's fees and other costs in addition to reimbursements for the money Baton Rouge has spent related to the opioid crisis, should the city-parish be successful.
The city-parish's contract with Baron & Budd says the attorneys would be paid from money awarded to the city-parish if the lawsuit is successful. The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council approved the contract with the law firm Dec. 13.
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The lawsuit was filed midday Tuesday in the U.S. District Court's middle district of Louisiana. The plaintiffs are the city of Baton Rouge and East Baton Rouge Parish. The defendants include Johnson and Johnson and its related companies; Teva Pharmaceuticals and its related companies; Purdue Pharma and its related companies; Endo Pharmaceuticals and its related companies; Actavis Pharma and its related companies; Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals and its related companies; AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp; Cardinal Health Inc. and McKesson Corp.
Representatives for the pharmaceutical companies and distributors named in the Baton Rouge lawsuit have pushed back against the allegations.
"We maintain that the allegations made in the lawsuits against our company are baseless and unsubstantiated," said Jessica Castles Smith, spokeswoman for Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., which is the pharmaceutical company for Johnson and Johnson. Janssen is also named as a defendant in the Baton Rouge suit. "Our actions in the marketing and promotion of our opioid pain medicines were appropriate and responsible."
The Janssen spokeswoman also said the company recognizes the public health problems with opioid addiction, and said they "look forward to being part of the ongoing dialogue and finding ways to address the crisis."
The national trade association for wholesale drug distributors, the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, has also denied their culpability in the opioid epidemic. A spokesman for the alliance, which represents McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, said they will not be scapegoats.
“Given our role, the idea that distributors are solely responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and how it is regulated," said John Parker, a senior vice president for the HDA.
Parker described distributors as "logistics companies," saying it's their job to focus on storage, transport and delivery of drugs and not the prescription or dispersion of them. He added that they, too, are eager to find solutions to the opioid epidemic.
The suit requests a jury trial.
Editor's note: This article was updated Jan. 25, 2018 to add responses from representatives for pharmaceutical and drug distribution companies that were named in the lawsuit.