Santa Clara County joined a lawsuit filed by Orange County charging major drug firms with deceiving consumers about the dangers of using opioid narcotic painkillers for non-cancer-related pain.
Santa Clara County Counsel Orry Korb and Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas allege in the suit that the five largest makers of prescription opioids covered up the addictive nature of drugs such as OxyContin and Percocet, Assistant County Counsel Danny Chou said.
The manufacturers named in the suit, Purdue Pharma, Caphalon, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Endo Health Solutions, and Actavis, also made claims about the benefits of the drugs for non-cancer patients without scientific support and only to promote sales of the products, Chou said.
Opioids, which are narcotics derived from opium plants, have evolved into being the most widely prescribed class of drugs in the U.S. and have the same effect in the brain as heroin, Chou said.
"The truth is that there is no scientific evidence to show that these painkillers are useful for treating long-term, non-cancer pain and the evidence also shows that these drugs pose a serious risk of addiction and abuse," he said.
Drug companies took in $8 billion from opioids alone in 2010 and the top seller, OxyContin, which has been available since the 1990s, generated $3.1 billion, according to Chou.
The suit will become "a battle" with the five pharma companies and "I wouldn't be surprised if it took years" to resolve in the courts, Chou said.
Chou and Lead Deputy County Counsel Greta Hansen discussed the joint lawsuit Thursday morning at a news conference at the County Government Center in San Jose.
Hansen said the focus of lawsuit is holding the pharmaceutical industry accountable for "deceptive practices" about opioids during a "massive two decades-long campaign trying to convince doctors and patients that opioids are an effective, safe treatment for chronic, long term, non-cancer pain."
The painkillers can lead to people abusing street heroin, which former users of opioids turn to after their opioid prescriptions run out because it is cheaper, Hansen said.
"Opioid painkillers are certainly connected to the recent rise in heroin addiction that we are seeing across the country," Hansen said.
In the 105-page complaint filed by the two counties today in Orange County Superior Court, the plaintiffs list examples "of instances where the drug companies misled doctors and patients, as well as use front groups to mislead doctors and patients," Chou said.
The number of deaths annually in the U.S. that are traced to opioid drug abuse exceed those resulting from car accidents, suicides and heroin and cocaine overdoses combined, according to Chou.
About 4,000 people die each year from opioids in California, double the number of homicides in the state, he said.
There are about 2.4 million people abusing opioids nationwide and new users of them increased by 104 percent between 2000 and 2010, he said.
The office of the county counsel in San Jose is authorized by state law to bring lawsuits and has in the past, including a successful one brought against manufacturers of lead paint that garnered a judgment of more than $1 billion last December, Chou said.