LOCKPORT, N.Y. — A measure to declare the opioid epidemic a "public nuisance" sailed through Niagara County legislative committees on Monday night, intended as a move to bolster the county's ongoing civil lawsuit against major drug manufacturers.
The full Niagara County legislature is now widely expected to pass the local law with bipartisan support.
Rebecca Wydysh, a county legislator and chairwoman of the committee on opioid addiction, said the county attorney recommended a public nuisance law as a legal strategy. The designation could give the county leverage in court as it seeks to recover damages associated with the opioid crisis.
Niagara County is one of at least three local governments in Western New York to officially file a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies, along with Erie and Chautauqua counties. The suits accuse the nation's largest drug companies of misleading doctors and patients about the addictive nature of painkillers and opioids.
Instead of joining a class-action suit, however, Niagara County enlisted New York City-based Napoli Shkolnik PLLC to represent it in an individual suit.
"Certainly, it has been a huge financial burden on the taxpayers of Niagara County, as it has all over the country," Wydysh said. "That's something that, hopefully, we will get a little bit back from the pharmaceutical companies to help cover the costs that the crisis has caused here."
Overdoses killed 31 people in Niagara County last year, according to Wydysh. The county also tallied 308 non-fatal overdose calls, and it ranked fourth statewide in opioid prescriptions per capita.
In all, at least seven Western New York counties have either filed a lawsuit or explored the possibility of legal action against major drug companies.
It is not an isolated trend.
Hundreds of local governments across the United States -- and even some individual states -- have filed nearly identical lawsuits against manufacturers like Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson, among others. The wave of lawsuits even led Purdue Pharma to announce this weekend it will stop promoting OxyContin to doctors.
The companies have long insisted that the lawsuits are an oversimplification of the problem and unfairly lay the blame solely on their shoulders. In a statement to 2 On Your Side last year, Purdue Pharma's spokesperson noted that OxyContin accounted for only two percent of its painkiller prescriptions, adding that the company was an "industry leader" in abuse deterrence. Another company, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, called the allegations "legally and factually unfounded."
However, county and state governments still feel the companies should essentially reimburse them for the costs of the opioid crisis.
In Niagara County, the skyrocketing number of overdoses places an increased financial burden on public health, law enforcement and mental health departments.
"This is something that has hit every department in the county," Wydysh said.
The question for public officials, however, is this: Will the money recovered through lawsuits actually go toward addiction treatment and recovery? The tobacco settlements of the '90s, for example, paid out billions of dollars to governments, but the money wasn't always used for anti-smoking or health initiatives.
Wydysh promised any earnings would be used for the right purposes.
"Certainly," she said. "That's something we have to focus on."
First, of course, the county must prove in court that it is entitled to actually collect damages from the drug companies. It appears the "public nuisance" law, which is still subject to public hearings before a vote, will factor into those arguments.
Randy Bradt, the Niagara County Legislature Majority Leader, called the public nuisance proposal an example of "bipartisanship at its finest."
The issue is especially personal for Bradt, who lost a relative to the opioid epidemic.
"I will keep doing everything in my power, everything in my legal means as legislator, to combat this, and help every family," Bradt said, "so that it doesn't happen to any other families."