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Municipalities Team Up To Sue The Pharmaceutical Industry


Cities, counties and towns across this country are teaming up to sue the pharmaceutical industry. They're trying to recover some of the money they've spent on the opioid crisis. From Belknap County, N.H., to the Yurok Tribe in Northern California, what started as separate lawsuits have been consolidated into one giant case against some of the companies that make and distribute these drugs. Rachel Martin spoke with a lawyer, Mark Chalos, who represents the city of Nashville, among other plaintiffs.

MARK CHALOS: Our first responders are stretched thin. They all now are carrying opioid-reversal agents. It's cost the taxpayers of Nashville significant sums in the millions over time. And this epidemic knows no bounds. We're seeing it everywhere from inner-city neighborhoods to the affluent suburbs. It's been absolutely devastating.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: So what damages would make a difference? I mean, what does the city of Nashville want out of this?

CHALOS: The city of Nashville wants primarily two things. One is to reduce the number of opioid pills in our community and make sure that the people who really need these drugs can get them. At the same time, they want to make sure that people who don't need them don't have such easy access to them. No. 2 is we want to recover, on behalf of the city, the taxpayer dollars that have been used to combat the harms of the opioids catastrophe.

MARTIN: How are the drugs getting into the communities? Because presumably, there are physicians who are writing prescriptions for these medications.

CHALOS: Right. And today, we all know the dangers of opioids. We have a fairly good understanding of the mechanisms of addiction and the risks for it. Going back in time, the manufacturers and distributors have jointly promoted to the medical community that there isn't really much risk for opioid addiction, that these are pills that should be taken for chronic, long-term pain, and if you see a patient who exhibits what might be addictive behavior, what they're experiencing is not addiction but a continuation of the underlying pain that they're being treated for. They called it pseudo-addiction - they being the opioids industry.

MARTIN: So what exactly is the charge you're trying to prove? Are you trying to demonstrate negligence? And if so, how do you do that?

CHALOS: Yes, negligence is certainly part of it. What we are saying on behalf of our clients is that for years, this industry has overpromoted, overmarketed and oversupplied our communities with opioids, and it's that combination of misleading, oversupplying, dodging regulations that ultimately created the opioids catastrophe we're living with today.

MARTIN: Do you have evidence that they have intentionally misled the public and physicians about the danger and addictive nature of these drugs?

CHALOS: That's our contention. I think when all the evidence comes out, we're going to see that these companies acted deliberately, and they acted with an awful lot of knowledge that they didn't disclose to the public and to the medical community.

MARTIN: Mark Chalos is a lawyer with Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein in Nashville. He is leading a group of plaintiffs suing opioid manufacturers and distributors. Mr. Chalos, thanks so much for your time.

CHALOS: Thank you, Rachel.


INSKEEP: OK, NPR contacted several of the companies targeted in this lawsuit, including Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals. All of them declined to be interviewed. An industry association for drug distributors emailed a statement, which said, holding distributors responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written by doctors, quote, "defies common sense."

(SOUNDBITE OF CAVES OF STEEL'S "MAGIC SMOKE OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.