Travis County files lawsuit against makers of pharmaceutical opioids

FILE - Vial of Fentanyl Citrate (KXAN File Photo)
FILE - Vial of Fentanyl Citrate (KXAN File Photo/Ben Friberg)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Travis County has filed a lawsuit against the makers, distributors and marketers of pharmaceutical opioids for damages and penalties, describing the legal action as essential to protecting the interests of the county and its citizens. The county is seeking up to $100 million.

“Aggressive marketing for the overuse and consequent addiction to pharmaceutical opioids has caused real harm in our community and among our families,” said County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. “This legal action is necessary to stop the harvesting of profits from human suffering.”

The county says there is no doubt the nationwide opioid epidemic is impacting Travis County significantly. The Commissioners Court voted to take this first step in pursuing claims on behalf of the county.

Purdue Pharma Inc., Johnson & Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceutica, Inc., Endo Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Allergan, Actavis, McKesson and Cardinal Health are among the plaintiffs listed in the 59-page suit.

One woman, who lost her son a year ago, says the money may not be enough. Cash Owen was just 22 years old when he died from an overdose of heroin laced with the powerful opioid fentanyl. “It went straight from pills to heroin. He never talked about fentanyl. He never asked to get fentanyl,” his mother, Jacy Planta, said.

She says the lawsuit is a good start, but emphasizes there’s more at play because synthetic opioids are not coming from pharmaceutical companies, but from drug cartels and Mexico.

“These kids aren’t dying of prescribed fentanyl — prescribed opioids. They’re dying from the cartel bringing in fentanyl and lacing it. They’re dying from death dealers that are putting it into other substances and pressing it into pills,” Planta said. “We also need to address that it has graduated from the pharmaceutical companies.”

Planta also says you can go online right now and purchase them legally from China.

Travis County Attorney David Escamilla, District Attorney Margaret Moore and outside counsel will be working together to recover damages and help mitigate the impact of the endemic on the community, the county said in a statement Monday.

“As elected officials, it is our responsibility to protect constituents from those who wish to take advantage of their pain to make a quick dollar,” added Eckhardt. “The filing of this lawsuit is a first step to recovery.”

Mark Kinzly, co-founder of the Texas Overdose Naloxone Initiative said the problem started with over-prescribing — four out of five people with opioid use disorders started with prescription pain medications. “The long-term outlook from the pharmaceutical companies certainly did not indicate that that’s where we were gonna end up,” Kinzly said. “Our tactics around treating symptoms needs to be changed.”

To give you an idea of how many of these drugs are being prescribed we checked with the Texas State Board of Pharmacy. For just fentanyl, pharmacies dispensed nearly 19,000 prescriptions in Travis County last year. Across Texas, they handed out almost 340,000 prescriptions of the drug.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioids killed more than 42,000 people in 2016, more than any year on record.

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