PORTLAND, Ore. -- The city of Portland has launched into a fight akin to David versus Goliath; deciding unanimously Wednesday to sue the companies that make and distribute prescription pain medicines like Oxycontin and Vicodin.
Portland city councilors say it's an attempt to get back the millions of taxpayer dollars spent on overdoses and addiction to these pills.
This week Clark County, Washington, commissioners decided they're also suing to get back taxpayer funds. Multnomah County has filed as well, along with hundreds of other municipalities around the country. The crux? Big pharma knew these pills are addictive and have deceived doctors and consumers into continuing to take them.
Opioids are a leading cause of our homeless crisis. Addiction to pills can lead to harder drugs like heroin, loss of jobs, and a place to live. City officials say over 3,400 emergency calls of opioid overdoses come in a year in Portland. That's ambulance bills that go unpaid, hourly pay of police and firefighters, and the cost of 400 shots of the overdose-reversing drug Narcan adding up to millions of taxpayer dollars, all traced back to pills from your doctor.
Mayor Ted Wheeler made an impassioned speech in front of city council Wednesday. "At the same time, drug manufacturers have shown a reckless disregard for the danger their products pose. Drug companies continue to take in profits while cities like Portland are faced with significant budget shortfalls," Wheeler said.
The Portland City Council voted unanimously to hire a private law firm to help sue these big pharma companies to recoup city funds spent on the devastation from prescription pain meds like Oxycontin, Vicodin, Fentanyl and codeine. In both the case of the city of Portland and Clark County, which has also hired a private Seattle firm, those lawyers will only be paid if the city recovers damages in a settlement or trial.
Prescription pain pills have flooded the marketplace. What used to be saved for only the terminally ill or cancer patients, is now readily given for daily aches and pains. The CDC says 16,800 people died from prescription opioids in 2016, more than any year on record.
Portland's lawsuit alleges consumer deception, criminal negligence, even racketeering is a new legal tactic that's spreading. About 400 cities and counties in 26 states are also suing opioid makers and distributors.
"Your money is paying the cost of opioid addiction that, in part, fueled the profits of pharmaceutical companies, there's no doubt about that," said former U.S. attorney for Oregon Dwight Holton. Holton is now the CEO of Lines for Life, a regional nonprofit preventing substance abuse and suicide. He understands both the legal angle of the suit, and the critical need to stop the push of these addictive drugs. "Cities and counties around the nation are starting to demand that pharma companies come to the table and take some responsibility and help be a part of the solution."
He hopes the movement works, but says it's going to be tough.
"I have found the pharmaceutical companies to be very resistant to taking serious responsibility for their role in this. I understand they didn't intentionally spread addiction and disease, that they didn't intentionally spread the devastation that comes with addiction, but the fact is they profited by billions and billions of dollars from opioid addiction and it's time for them to be at the table, helping us with constructive solutions to this crisis."
As for the response from the drug makers, Purdue Pharma, one of the biggest companies told NBC News: "We are an industry leader in the development of abuse-deterrent technology, advocating for the use of prescription drug monitoring programs and supporting access to Naloxone (Narcan)-- all important components for combating the opioid crisis."
The city of Portland's lawsuit won't ask for a specific dollar amount, even though they say the city spends millions on it per year. Once the case is officially filed in U.S. District Court in Oregon, it'll be transferred to a judge in Ohio who is handling hundreds of these claims, to join a multi-district litigation.