BUFFALO, N.Y. - Erie County will seek millions of dollars in damages against 11 pharmaceutical companies, including some of the largest drug manufacturers in the country, accusing them in a civil lawsuit of contributing to the opioid epidemic by knowingly pushing highly addictive painkillers to the public.
The lawsuit, filed in New York State Supreme Court this week, targets Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, Janssen Pharmaceuticals and Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, among others. The suit also names four individual doctors.
According to the lawsuit, the companies used deceptive marketing tactics to reassure doctors and patients that they could use opioids to treat long-term pain, all while ignoring the risks of addiction and overdoses.
"Defendants, individually and collectively, knowing that long-term opioid use causes addiction, misrepresented the dangers of long-term opioid use to physicians, pharmacists, and patients," the lawsuit claims, "by engaging in a campaign to minimize the risks of, and to encourage, long-term opioid use."
In Erie County, an estimated 320 people died of overdoses in 2016, according to Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz. So far, in 2017, 43 people have died of overdoses, a pace of more than one death per day since Jan. 1.
"We want the pharmaceutical companies to know that we will not tolerate them taking advantage of our population," Poloncarz said. "They need to be penalized for what they did."
Poloncarz, a Democrat, announced the lawsuit on Thursday alongside Paul Hanly, Jr., an attorney with a major New York City firm named Simmons, Hanly & Conroy. Hanly's firm filed a similar lawsuit on behalf of Broome County on Wednesday, and it also helped Suffolk County pursue legal action against pharmaceutical companies back in September.
"The county has suffered terribly from this epidemic," Hanly said, "And we believe -- my law firm believes -- that we have the ability to bring justice to Erie County and its residents against these companies, who since 1994, have been engaged in a scheme to defraud the public."
Multiple companies named in the lawsuit responded to WGRZ-TV with written statements, including Purdue Pharma, the Connecticut-based company that founded OxyContin.
"We share public officials' concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions," the company's statement said. "Although OxyContin accounts for only 2% of all pain-related opioid prescriptions, Purdue is an industry leader in abuse deterrence as we were the first pharmaceutical company to develop an opioid medication with abuse-deterrent properties."
Jessica Castles Smith, a spokesperson for Janssen Pharmaceuticals, defended the company as having acted "appropriately, responsibly and in the best interest of patients regarding our opioid pain medications, which are are FDA-approved and carry FDA-mandated warnings about the known risks of the medications on every product label. We firmly believe the allegations in this lawsuit are both legally and factually unfounded."
A spokesperson for Teva Pharmaceuticals USA also said: "We understand that the risk of opioid abuse and misuse is a challenge many healthcare professionals face in treating individuals living with chronic pain. Opioid analgesics are an important, if not essential, treatment option for many of the millions of Americans living with chronic pain."
Debra Smith, who lost her son Nathaniel to the epidemic in Sept. 2015, praised the county for filing the lawsuit against the 11 drug companies. She said she understands that opioids have a practical use for the medical community, but feels the system has fallen apart.
"I will tell you what I feel," Smith said. "I feel that my son had kidney stones, he had chronic kidney stones, and what he ended up with was a death sentence through the pharmaceutical industry."
Poloncarz and Hanly drew comparisons between the pharmaceutical industry and the tobacco industry, which was the target of a lawsuit by Erie County in the mid-1990s.
"We expect these pharmaceutical companies and doctors to be armed at the teeth with some of the highest-paid defense attorneys in the country," Poloncarz said. "So we fully expect them to be fighting us. But we know we're on the right side."