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Update: St. Louis County approves lawsuit against opioid makers

OxyContin, in 80 mg pills, in a 2013 file image. (Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

St. Louis County commissioners on Tuesday unanimouosly approved a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical companies that make synthetic opioids in an effort to recover some of the social and public costs from the drug addiction crisis that is rocking the Northland and the nation.

The county board passed a resolution authorizing County Attorney Mark Rubin to start litigation against opioid manufacturers and distributors for being complicit and complacent in the opioid addiction epidemic.

County officials say there were 167 overdose deaths in St. Louis County between 2011 and 2016, including heroin, opioids and other prescription pain medications.

The board resolution also allows Rubin to hire outside counsel to pursue the lawsuit, likely at no cost to the county, with the law firm making money only if the county is successful with other local governments nationwide in collecting any award or settlement form the companies.

"I know other Minnesota counties are looking at this right now as well," Rubin said. "The impact, the devastation this (epidemic) has not just on the young people who are using the drugs, but on their children ... it's time to do this."

Opioids and related drugs killed more than 52,000 people across the U.S. in 2015, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of the deaths involved common prescription opioids such as OxyContin or Vicodin, or related drugs such as heroin and fentanyl. People with addictions often take whichever of the drugs they can get cheapest and easiest.

In recent months news reports have surfaced that appear to show pharmaceutical manufacturers knew of the addiction potential and still relentlessly marketed their products despite the dangers.

In St. Louis County the epidemic has caused not just overdose deaths but also huge taxpayer costs to arrest, prosecute and jail more addicts and dealers, to pay for the overdose-blocking drug Narcan and to cover the cost of increased foster care and social workers for the families destroyed by addicted parents.

There's also increased medical costs for children born addicted to the drugs abused by their mothers, Rubin noted.

"Across the country, counties and municipalities are commencing litigation against the manufacturers and distributors and other involved parties seeking accountability in both the form of injunctive relief and monetary compensation for damages incurred relative to the opioid epidemic," the St. Louis County resolution states. "The goal if the litigation is to provide the county with additional resources to combat opioid addiction, overdose and death through both equitable and monetary relief."

Rubin said hundreds of lawsuits nationally could eventually be merged into a massive suit and settlement that could play out much like the settlements with tobacco companies over their prolonged coverup of the addictive and cancer-causing qualities of their products.

"The heroin epidemic isn't going to go away anytime soon. We have one of the highest per-capita death rates in the state from opioids and heroin and we've been using mostly our own resources to pay for it," said Patrick Boyle, county commissioner representing eastern Duluth. "Now it's time to go after the people who made money off this epidemic."

Douglas County, Wis., moved to join a larger opioid suit two weeks ago.

Seven counties in New York started the trend in September, filing suit against the largest opioid manufacturers. Also in September attorneys general from 41 states, including Minnesota's Lori Swanson, said they had served subpoenas requesting information from five opioid companies that make powerful prescription painkillers and demanded information from three drug distributors. The states are looking at marketing and sales practices, seeking to find out whether the industry's actions worsened the epidemic.

In October, Cuyahoga County, Ohio (Cleveland) filed a state lawsuit against Purdue Pharma LP, the original maker of OxyContin, as well as Teva Pharmaceuticals, Cephalon, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen Corp. The suit also accused four named doctors of downplaying the risk of prescription opioids in papers and lectures funded by the drug companies. That suit goes further, accusing the companies of racketeering, and conspiring with each other to keep prices up and to hide the addiction dangers.