Alaska considering joining lawsuit against opioid manufacturers

(Photo by frankieleon/Flickr Creative Commons)

Officials with the state of Alaska are considering joining two other states in suing the manufacturer of OxyContin for its role in creating the opioid epidemic, Alaska Public Media reports.

The state has inked a contract with law firm Motley Rice, which has brought lawsuits against Perdue Pharma on behalf of South Carolina and New Hampshire, to help investigate whether or not the state should file its own suit against the drug maker. The decision will ultimately be left up to Attorney General Jahna Lindemuth.

“We’re going to look into it,” Department of Law spokeswoman Cori Mills told Alaska Public Media. “It’ll be thoroughly vetted, and then if we do end up deciding that a lawsuit can be filed and that a lawsuit is viable, then we’ll file that, and that’ll be a public document. But until then, there is no further information we can disclose on the investigation.”

Gov. Bill Walker declared opioid addiction and abuse a statewide disaster earlier this year, launching additional measures and pushing for new legislation to combat the epidemic. Much of the response has focused on increasing public awareness, increasing access to anti-overdose drugs and increasing the availability of treatment.

The state hasn’t discussed what damages it might seek in the suit, but other states have pursued monetary damages to help cover the cost of treatment.

Similar lawsuits have also recently been launched by Oklahoma, Ohio and Missouri akin to the wave of legal action against major tobacco companies in the 1990s. Some localities have also pursued lawsuits against the companies.

Perdue Pharma and its executives paid a $600 million fine in 2007 for intentionally misleading federal regulators, doctors and patients about the drug’s risk of addiction.

The saga is well-documented in the Sam Quinones’ “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.” The book explores the rise of prescription opioids through long-lasting dosages like OxyContin that claimed to be largely free from the traditional strong addiction of opioids when used properly. Quinones documented aggressive marketing and sales tactics that targeted key influencers in the medical world to grow the opioid business into the $13 billion industry it is today.

The state of opioid abuse in Alaska

Alaska reported 65 deaths due to prescription opioid painkillers in 2016, a slight drop from 2015. There were also 49 deaths attributed to heroin, an illegal street opioid, in 2016, which was a slight up tick from the previous year.

Much reporting on the opioid crisis has charted the transition some people take from using and abusing prescription opioid painkillers to using heroin to more easily and cheaply satisfy the extremely strong forces of addiction and withdrawal. A KTUU report from the recent opioid summit in the Mat-Su area explored that exact issue, finding

Individuals who are heroin addicts now generally started because of friends, family, or a personal prescription,” Farina Brown, the chief clinical officer of Akeela.

Law enforcement in the Fairbanks area have tied opioid abuse to an rise in crime, and the Anchorage Assembly earlier this summer also dove into the issue.

“Is this epidemic fueling some of the property crime and car thefts that we’re seeing? I don’t know the answer, but I’d like to get to it,” Assemblyman Eric Croft said at the time.

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