Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s lawsuit against the nation’s largest drug makers and distributors marks a moment of awakening in the state’s battle to recover from the opioid crisis.
In blunt, forceful language, Bondi accuses these companies of sparking the deadly opioid epidemic through sham marketing that reaped the defendants “billions of dollars” while causing “immense harm to the state of Florida.”
This is an important step in holding an industry accountable for the incredible damage that has wracked communities and families.
Bondi unveiled the lawsuit at a news conference last week where she was flanked by police, firefighters and families of opioid victims, underscoring her intent to put a human face to a crisis that has killed some 10,000 Floridians at a pace of about 15 a day in 2016.
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The suit targets some of the biggest drug manufacturers in the country, including Purdue Pharma, which makes the drugs OxyContin and Dilaudid, and Endo Pharmaceuticals, which makes Percocet and Opana. The defendants also include the drug distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson. Bondi said the state has suffered massive losses in lives, health and productivity, and the costs have been significant for law enforcement, first responders and other portions of the social safety net. “It’s time the defendants pay for the pain and the destruction that they have caused,” Bondi said.
The long-awaited lawsuit, filed in Pasco County, accuses the companies of violating their duty to keep opioids from being misused, alleging they engaged in deceptive trade practices and amounted to a public nuisance.
It accuses drug manufacturers of misrepresenting the drugs to physicians and consumers to increase opioid prescriptions. Drug makers used front groups that appeared to be neutral third-parties to promote the use of opioids as safe. The suit also claims that drug makers paid “key opinion leaders” with speaking fees, food and travel to lend an air of legitimacy within their profession about the use of opioids for pain relief.
The distributors, Bondi said, “unconscionably violated” their duty to prevent opioids from being diverted to non-medical uses by “shipping hundreds of millions of opioids into Florida without sounding the alarm or stopping the shipments.” These companies knew their customers were ordering an inordinately high number of opioids, the suit states, but “refused to report the suspicious” activity, turning “a blind eye to this activity in order to earn higher profits.”
A spokesman for Purdue Pharma said they “vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.” In that spirit, both sides should commit to transparency as the discovery process proceeds so the public has the fullest picture possible of how this crisis evolved. Bondi’s office has an obligation to keep the record open and accessible just as the defendants have an interest in answering the charges publicly.
Bondi has been criticized for taking so long to file the case. But the lawsuit adds to the court cases against the drug industry across the country, a critical mass that is more relevant to the issue than the timing of legal action by any individual state.
The attorney general deserves credit for a robust complaint that aptly captures the human costs of the opioid crisis. Now Florida needs to vigorously prosecute its position in court.
This editorial was first published in the Tampa Bay Times.