Hillsborough opioid lawsuit: We’re not going to arrest our way out of it

By: Chip Osowski

Posted: Aug 14, 2018 05:52 PM EDT

Updated: Aug 14, 2018 06:36 PM EDT

TAMPA, Fla (WFLA) – Hillsborough County is taking aim at drug dealers, but it’s not what you think.

On Tuesday morning, county leaders including Sheriff Chad Chronister, Fire Chief Dennis Jones and County Commissioner Sandra Murman, announced a law suit against 14 large opioid manufacturers.

Among those named in the suit: Purdue Pharma, Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., Teva Pharmaceuticals USA and Walgreens Corporation.

Commissioner Murman says the opioid addiction problem is one that defies socio-economic boundaries and also affects citizens of all ages.  

“It affects our seniors, adolescents, children, families, our stakeholders, everybody,” said Murman. “This is a community-wide effort that really needs to take place to fight this terrible addiction, this terrible crisis.”

Chronister says this is more complex than cuffing the corner drug pusher.

“This is not an epidemic that we’re going to arrest our way out of,” said Chronister.  “It is going to take treatment, prevention, education and obviously enforcement.”

County leaders hope the lawsuit sends a strong message to drug manufacturers that their practices are not going unnoticed.

“Each Manufacturing Defendant knew that its misrepresentations of the risks and benefits of opioids were not supported by, or were directly contrary to, the scientific evidence,” the suit alleges. “Once the Manufacturing Defendants created the mass market for prescription opioids, Distributor Defendants flooded it.”

Hans Lutz is the program director at Turning Point in Tampa. He’s seen a growing number of clients who are addicted to prescription pills.

“I’ve seen an epidemic in the past 15 years.  A lot, a lot [of clients.]  A ton of people seeking treatment for opioid addiction,” he said.

Nicole Paulson was one of them. She went to a doctor more than a decade ago with back pain. It was a visit to a clinic that changed her life, and not in a good way.

“I remember the doctor holding up my X-rays to his staff and saying, ‘She can get whatever she wants.  Look at these,'” said Paulson, who was prescribed a cocktail of prescription medication.

“Six or seven oxycodone a day, 30 milligrams. A day.  And that’s not including the oxycontin. I was prescribed three of those.”

Paulson is recovering and hopes her story can help others avoid the path she wandered down. She says the pill popping wiped away years of her life.  It saddens her to think about what she could’ve been doing in her early 20s.

“Years that I should have been in college, you know, growing as a person, developing, instead they were spent abusing pills.”

She says she was never given all the information about the pills that were prescribed to her.

“Knowing that these substances were addictive. Oxycodone and then saying that they weren’t, it’s a lie,” said Paulson. “They lied.”

Lutz is hopeful the lawsuit will send a message, but he isn’t holding his breath.

“I don’t think it’s going to stop the drug companies from doing what they’re doing. I don’t think it’s going to stop addicts who want to use. I don’t think it’s going to stop them from doing what they want to do,” said Lutz. “I do think something needs to be done.”

News Channel 8 emailed several of the companies named in the lawsuit.  A representative from Teva Pharmaceuticals said she couldn’t comment on pending litigation.

Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc. released the following statement:

Opioid abuse and addiction are serious public health issues. We are committed to being part of the ongoing dialogue and to doing our part to find ways to address this crisis.

Our actions in the marketing and promotion of these medicines were appropriate and responsible. The labels for our prescription opioid pain medicines provide information about their risks and benefits, and the allegations made against our company are baseless and unsubstantiated. In fact, our medications have some of the lowest rates of abuse among this class of medications.