New York City Mayor, Bill de Blasio, announced on Tuesday that the city filed a lawsuit in the New York State Supreme Court against eight pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and prescribe opioids. The lawsuit is an attempt to recover monetary losses that the city has incurred while fighting the opioid epidemic. According to the city’s press release, more people died from opioid overdoses in 2016 “than from car accidents and homicides combined.” With a death toll of over 1000 people, it was the worst year in New York City on record for deadly overdoses involving opioids.
Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, Dr. Herminia Palacio declared, “We have much more work to do – but NYC has continued to take this challenge head-on by distributing thousands of naloxone kits throughout the five boroughs, increasing access to medication-assisted treatment, and running media campaigns to give New Yorkers the information and tools they need to get better. This litigation is another tool to address the opioid epidemic in New York City.”
The lawsuit – targeting Purdue Pharma, Cephalon, Johnson & Johnson, and Janssen among others – seeks half a billion dollars in damages to assist the city with moving forward. According to the city, the lawsuit also alleges that manufacturers used deceptive marketing, “to create a false perception that using opioids to treat chronic pain was safe for most patients and that the drugs’ benefits outweighed the risks.” And that over the past 20 years this marketing was “perpetrated through a coordinated, sophisticated and highly deceptive promotion and marketing campaign – including unbranded messaging to evade extensive regulatory framework governing branded communications.”
“Big Pharma helped to fuel this epidemic by deceptively peddling these dangerous drugs and hooking millions of Americans in exchange for profit,” said Mayor de Blasio in a press conference held in the Bronx.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that over the course of 2016 nearly 65000 people died from opioid overdoses across the United States. New York City’s lawsuit is one of over 60 similar cases filed by local governments across the country against big pharma in response to the national epidemic. However, the ramifications of these suits for the industry at large are yet to be seen.
As Attorney Ken Feinberg points out in an interview with Fortune, the wave of suits could go either way. Distribution of opioids is indirect, and pharmaceutical companies are ostensibly adherent to federal laws and requirements. During the late 90’s, big cigarette producers were forced to make a civil settlement of $248 billion to disentangle themselves from lawsuits across the country. However, gun manufacturers lobbied their way to legal protections from such lawsuits.
The suit against Big Pharma is the second major legal filing announced by Mayor de Blasio this month. The city also filed suit against five large oil companies – including ExxonMobil, BP, and Chevron – over damages incurred from climate change. The City’s action follows similar litigation in California that drew significant ire from the oil industry. While the legal merit of both suits is ambiguous, the legal filings are likely to raise Mayor de Blasio’s national profile as he explores wider scale political ambitions and forms his own brand.