In May, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, citing the rising death toll from opioid overdoses in his state, sued five pharmaceutical companies, accusing them of playing down the risks of painkiller addiction. Ohio is the largest of 10 states that have sued pharmaceutical companies to recover the costs of treating the epidemic. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Chris Bury reports as part of our series, "America Addicted."
In Ohio, the climbing costs of the opioid epidemic are reflected in the shattered lives of people like Ashley Taylor. For the 26-year-old single mother of three, the road to addiction began in high school with pain pills often stolen from parents of friends. By 16, she was snorting, then shooting, heroin, because it was cheaper and easy to buy in the small southern Ohio town of Jackson, where she lives.
When did you know that you were addicted?
I'd say probably within a couple of weeks of doing them. Because you know, your body starts hurting and aching really bad, like you're just so sick that you have to have it.
Ashley says she's been clean and sober for just over a year, but the costs to her — and to Ohio– are still piling up. To begin, she lost custody of her three children after police raided her home on suspicion she was selling drugs.
They kicked in my doors, and my kids were home at the time. And there was multiple other people in my house. And they just kind of threw their needles on the floor. And so of course I was the one that got arrested, and they took my kids at the exact same time.
Ashley was charged with child endangerment and spent two weeks in jail. But in a deal with Jackson county's drug court — set up to handle a deluge of opioid cases — ashley's guilty plea is on hold while she follows judge mark musick's orders on treatment over two years.
The costs of compliance are high: every day, Ashley gets a ride to her aunt's house to visit her three kids. Ohio's child protective services — or CPS — placed Ashley's 7-year-old daughter and two boys, 4 and 6, in the custody of Ashley's aunt. CPS pays her 474 dollars a month to help raise the kids.
Foster care for children placed because of their parents' drug addiction — mainly from opioids — costs Ohio 45 million dollars a year.
Ashley's youngest child was born drug dependent; treatment for such children costs Ohio another 130 million dollars a year.
And they're still a hundred percent sober and supportive of your sobriety right?
Yeah, very, actually.
Every week, Ashley must attend multiple counseling sessions — and get tested for drugs. And for eight months, Ashley needed shots of the anti-addiction drug, Vivitrol. They cost more than $1,000 per injection. Overall, such medications — and the counseling — cost ohio medicaid 216 million dollars last year.
And that doesn't include the costs of Ohio's opioid epidemic to its hospitals, prisons and police…Or the rising death count.
In 2016, 4,050 people in ohio died of accidental overdoses, chiefly painkillers, heroin and fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid.
That was a 33-percent increase over 2015…And a 642-percent increase since 2000.
Think about this. We're losing 10 people, we think, every single day in the state of Ohio.
Those staggering losses and rising costs led Ohio Attorney General Mike Dewine — a former U.S. Senator now running for Governor — to sue five major producers of opioid painkillers.
"…companies that we conclude spent millions of dollars to deceptively market their drugs…"
Ohio's lawsuit levels an explosive charge: that the pharmaceutical companies deliberately misled doctors and the public to downplay the addictive qualities — and hyped the benefits — of painkillers that earn them billions of dollars a year.
The evidence, we think, is overwhelming. We think it shows that what they did, they did on purpose. They told physicians and spent millions, hundreds of millions of dollars, to get this message across to physicians that these opioids were not very addictive.
The companies sued include purdue pharma, which makes the widely prescribed painkiller, oxycontin… johnson and johnson, teva pharmaceuticals, endo health solutions, and allergan.
The pharmaceutical companies filed a joint motion to dismiss the lawsuit. None agreed to our requests to be interviewed.
Purdue pharma told "newshour weekend": "…While we vigorously deny the allegations, we share the attorney general's concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions…"
In a statement to us, Jannsen, a Johnson and Johnson subsidiary, noted its painkiller pills "…Are FDA-approved and carry fda-mandated warnings about possible risks on every product label…."
Is that going to be difficult for you to convince a jury that this was harmful, when the FDA was very clear in its approval?
Merely because the FDA approves something does not mean that a pharmaceutical company cannot mislead people. And I think the evidence is clearly going to show they did consistently over a number of decades.
Attorney Jodi Avergun is a former chief of staff for the Drug Enforcement Administration. Now she represents drug companies, though she's not involved in this lawsuit.
The people that pharmaceutical reps market to are doctors; they're trained physicians. And an opioid is an addictive drug. So it's hard for me to believe that there is a naïve population of doctors out there to whom pharmaceutical sales representatives were able to lie and mislead to the extent that's alleged in the lawsuit.
As evidence, the lawsuit cites pamphlets and educational guides…And claims companies paid sales reps and doctors millions of dollars to promote opioids and play down the risks of addiction. This video was produced by purdue pharma.
Purdue Pharma video:
And so these drugs, which I repeat, are our strongest pain medications should be used much more than they are for patients in pain.
Dr. Dona alba treats addicts in jackson ohio. She was a family physician for 20 years — and says pharma company representatives frequently pushed opioids.
They often came to the office, they pitched the product as the best possible analgesic for your patients, irrespective of the source of their pain, whether it was acute or whether it was chronic.
And what kind of risk did they talk about or warn about?
And what about the risk of addiction?
None. And they said these products did not cause people to become addicted. So they were safe to use.
In its lawsuit, Ohio also accuses big pharma of "taking a page" from big tobacco in the way they minimized risks of addiction.
Now, Ohio has hired Michael Moore, the former Mississippi Attorney General who helped win a 246 billion dollar settlement with tobacco companies in the 1990s.
It's just like the tobacco case. You have folks who made billions of dollars by lying to the American public and causing a huge public nuisance and in this case killing 60,000 people a year. Who should pay for that? The taxpayers or the companies who made the billions of dollars? In my view, the companies ought to pay for it.
The critical difference here is that this case is involving medicine; it's involving something that people in the health care business are making and distributing. Tobacco was a product that people enjoyed and smoked, and there was no claim that it was good for you. So I think that that's a very huge difference.
CHRIS BURY STANDUP:
Ohio's attorney general filed the lawsuit here in Chillicothe, in the southern part of the state bordering the Appalachian Mountains. In this county of 77,000 people, the lawsuit claims, more than 1.6 million opioid pills were prescribed in 2015 alone. That's the equivalent of 21 pills for every man, woman and child here in Ross County.
Well, we got him into treatment, and he doesn't have a ride today.
Chillicothe police detective bud lytle leads a team that tries to get overdose survivors into treatment. In this county- fatal overdoses from prescription painkillers have now been overtaken by those from heroin and fentanyl. But Lytle sees a strong tie.
Do you see a direct connection from the opioids to heroin and fentanyl?
70 to 80 percent of the individuals that I deal with, their addictions started with a legitimate prescription from a doctor, and them taking it the way the doctor had originally prescribed until they became addicted. And eventually what happens is the pills are much more expensive than heroin, much more expensive than fentanyl to buy on the street.
Hey, Logan what's up, man?
Lytle's entire job is to battle the opioid epidemic. Every wednesday, his team visits the homes of everyone in the county who overdosed the week before. During our visit, he checked up on 21-year-old logan mcgraw at his mother's home. He had overdosed six times on heroin and fentanyl over the last month.
I was at my house and my mom found me unconscious
Detective lytle takes logan to a treatment center. His bill will cost Ohio more than $5,000 a month. Overall, the state claims, fatal overdoses, medical expenses, and lost work cost Ohioans 4 billion dollars a year.
A cascade of opioids lawsuits against big pharma — by Ohio and nine other states — raises the odds of a settlement according to Michael Moore. He'd like to see any money recovered used to help addicts and prevent opioid use.
A prevention and education program will cost at least $100 million a year, similar to what we did in the tobacco cases to reduce youth smoking.// (16:01) We also hope and learned a lesson from tobacco that we can get court orders that money has to go into treatment; money has to go into prevention.
Ashley taylor agrees. After years of not working because of her addiction and arrests, she now has a part time job at this fast food outlet. She's saving to rent a 3-bedroom home big enough to fit her three kids. If she does that — and stays clean — she can get her children back in legal custody, again.
I graduated a parenting class. I give them all my drug screens. So as long as I'm clean and I graduated the parenting and get a house for them, then they can come home with me.
You're looking forward to that?
Yes, I am. I'm so excited.
By Melanie Saltzman
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Melanie Saltzman reports, shoots and produces stories for PBS NewsHour Weekend on a wide range of issues including public health, the environment and international affairs. In 2017 she produced two stories for NewsHour’s “America Addicted” series on the opioid epidemic, traveled to the Marshall Islands to report on climate change, and went to Kenya and Tanzania to focus on solutions-based reporting. Melanie holds a BA from New York University and an MA in Journalism from Northwestern University, where she was a McCormick National Security Fellow. In 2010, she was awarded a Fulbright scholarship in Berlin, Germany.
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