The city of Chicago filed a lawsuit against five developers of painkiller prescription drugs, alleging that they contributed to the city’s opioid epidemic by overpromoting the benefits of the treatments while minimizing risks the city says led to an increase in prescription painkiller abuse, addiction, and overdose.

In papers filed with an Illinois state court, Chicago argued that Purdue Pharma, Cephalon, Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Endo International, and Actavis knowingly and aggressively marketed opioid drugs as rarely addictive, while touting benefits that lacked scientific support in order to boost profits.

The Chicago suit cites a quadrupling in the sale of opioids between 1999 and 2010; and the findings of a 2008 investigation that showed 87% of all opioids were dispensed to patients for long-term chronic pain, without scientific evidence supporting long-term use of the drugs for noncancer chronic pain.

According to the city, opioid abuse has cost Chicago’s Health Insurance Plan about $9.5 million in claim reimbursements connected to the drugs since 2008—and even worse, a 65% jump in emergency-room visits between 2004 and 2011. It is estimated that in Chicago in 2009, opioid misuse and abuse resulted in 1,080 emergency room visits alone.

Chicago officials also contended that the drug makers specifically targeted their marketing of opioids to senior citizens and veterans, by claiming that the painkillers would help improve their function and quality of life while unlikely to be addictive.

“For years, big pharma has deceived the public about the true risks and benefits of highly potent and highly addictive painkillers in order to expand their customer base and increase their bottom line. This has led to a dramatic rise in drug addiction, overdose, and diversion in communities across the nation, and Chicago is not immune to this epidemic,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement earlier this week. “We’re saying enough is enough—it’s time for these companies to end these irresponsible practices and be held accountable for their deceptive actions.”

Chicago is not seeking to ban opioids—a policy course pursued by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) unsuccessfully when he signed an executive order on March 27 banning the prescribing and dispensing of Zogenix’ Zohydro™ ER (hydrocodone bitartrate) extended-release (ER) capsules, despite their being approved by the FDA. Zogenix sued and quickly won a federal court lawsuit to overturn the ban, prompting Bay State lawmakers to enact curbs on how the painkiller can be prescribed.

Instead, Emanuel said, the Windy City seeks to end what it calls deceptive marketing “so that patients and physicians are able to make informed decisions.”

The same five companies targeted by Chicago were sued last month by California’s Orange and Santa Clara counties in state Superior Court on mostly similar grounds, with the counties also accusing the companies of promoting opioids as safer than over-the-counter medications. Orange and Santa Clara counties are seeking unspecified restitution and civil penalties.

After the filing of both California and Chicago suits, according to Bloomberg News, Johnson & Johnson cited Janssen’s being “committed to ethical business practices and responsible promotion, prescribing, and use of all our medications;” Purdue Pharma and Teva declined comment, while Actavis and Endo did not respond to queries. 

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