County attorneys in Minnesota sue opioid manufacturers, distributors

Updated: 6:15 p.m. | Posted 12:35 p.m.

A group of Minnesota county attorneys announced lawsuits Thursday against the manufacturers and distributors of opiate-based pain medications.

"We've had enough of the fraudulent marketing and negligent distribution of opioids, and all of us have had enough of the devastation that's been perpetrated on our communities," Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said at a press conference in St. Paul.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

He said the group would try to recoup the government's cost of dealing with the addiction crisis from three distributors and more than a half dozen manufacturers. Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said several Twin Cities law firms have agreed to join the legal effort and the suits would be filed in state and federal courts.

Orput said opioids have a legitimate use for post-surgery pain and end-of-life care, but that manufacturers told family physicians and other providers that the drugs were also useful for chronic pain and long-term use, while downplaying the risk of addiction.

He called it a "widespread and deeply deceptive marketing campaign."

"I'm willing to prove that and so are my colleagues," Orput said. "We've got ourselves a public health epidemic. There's more than a correlation that when the opioid marketing went up ... so did the heroin epidemic."

A number of manufacturers issued statements in response to requests for comment from MPR News, saying they only support the appropriate use of the medications for pain relief, and try to prevent illegal sales.

A statement from the Healthcare Distribution Alliance's senior vice president John Parker said the trade group is ready to work with political leaders, but "we aren't willing to be scapegoats."

"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," Parker said.

Orput was joined by county attorneys from Ramsey, Olmsted, Dakota, Carver and Mower counties. The group said they expect about 20 of the state's 87 counties to join the legal effort.

St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said there were 12 opioid-related deaths recently in Duluth alone.

"This is not just a metro problem. Between 2012 and 2016, in greater Minnesota, 607 people died because of an opioid related overdose," he said. More than 100 of those deaths were in St. Louis County.

Ramsey County commissioner Victoria Reinhardt compared the opioid addiction problem to pollution. "They must clean up their mess. They created it, they need to fix it," she said. "You have to figure out what to do with it in the end. It's not on the taxpayers."

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said prosecutors are pursuing more third-degree murder charges in overdose death cases as a tool to stem the epidemic. Freeman said his office alone will bring 21 such cases this year. He also said authorities plan to launch a public education campaign, comparable to recent efforts to curb methamphetamine use.