The Association of Arkansas Counties have now joined in the lawsuit

By: Scott Carroll, Janelle Lilley (KATV Ch. 7 News)

LITTLE ROCK (KATV) — The Association of Arkansas Counties on Thursday afternoon became the second statewide group to file a federal lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors over how the companies market and sell the drugs. 

The group joins the Arkansas Municipal League in suing the companies. Both organizations have accused the companies of downplaying the risks of opioids, particularly addiction, and exaggerating the benefits of the drugs.

They used false data and bad information to market to doctors that opioids were now safe for long-term treatment,” said AAC Executive Director Chris Villines.

The groups claim those practices have created a public health crisis in Arkansas and across the country that has led to physical harm and financial ruin for countless opioid users.

“For years, we’ve been paying local tax money to help handle overcrowded jails, overcrowded hospitals, put more deputies on the streets, so it’s really stretched the means of these counties to razor-thin layers,” Villines said.

Thirteen opioid manufacturers and distributors are listed as defendants in the lawsuits. Among the companies are Johnson & Johnson; Purdue Pharma; McKesson Corporation; Cardinal Health; Belgium-based Janssen Pharmaceuticals Ireland-based Activis Pharma.

In addition to the AAC’s lawsuit in federal court, Villines said Arkansas’ 75 counties will each file suit in their respective circuit court and will seek punitive damages specific to their county. He said AAC has hired a law firm from Alabama with experience in these cases to help the counties manage the lawsuits.

The suit says drug manufacturers “falsely and misleadingly” marketed opioids and persuaded doctors to over-prescribe the drugs through “front groups,” seemingly independent medical organizations that were actually paid by the drug-makers, and a small circle of influential and pro-opioid doctors known as “key opinion leaders.”

The Arkansas Municipal League compared the companies’ tactics to those of tobacco companies. The group, which represents more than 400 cities and towns in Arkansas, filed suit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas earlier this week. It voluntarily dismissed, or withdrew, that lawsuit on Wednesday for a technical reason, but the municipal league plans to re-file the lawsuit in federal court.

The Healthcare Distribution Alliance, a national group that represents some of the distributors named as defendants, said in a statement Thursday that the companies are “deeply engaged in the issue and are taking our own steps to be part of the solution – but we aren’t willing to be scapegoats.”

“We don’t make medicines, market medicines, prescribe medicines, or dispense them to consumers,” John Parker, the group’s senior vice president, said in the statement. “Given our role, the idea that distributors are solely responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and how it is regulated.”

Drug-makers have denied wrongdoing in similar lawsuits.

Chicago, Seattle and Indianapolis are among the municipalities that have sued opioid manufacturers in recent years, according to reports.

Arkansas has the second-highest opioid prescription rate in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency reported the rate to be 114.6 opioid prescriptions per 100 people. The national average is 66.5 prescriptions per 100 people.

Villines said the drugs have been over-prescribed.

“They went way beyond what a normal opioid prescription had been prior to that and started marketing, I’ve heard from some of our coroners, up to 90-day supplies of opioids have been given out,” he said. “And the research that we’ve seen shows that you can be addicted to opioids in as little as five days.”

There were about 108 opioid-related deaths in Arkansas last year, according to the Arkansas Department of Health.