The City of Miami recently announced its filing of a civil lawsuit in the 11th Judicial Circuit Court of Florida, following an investigation into alleged deceptive and false marketing practices by several manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioid painkillers.
In his previous role as District 4 Commissioner, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez sponsored legislation authorizing the City Attorney’s Office to engage outside counsel to file a lawsuit against manufacturers and/or distributors of prescription opiates.
Manufactures are a public nuisance
The suit alleges the defendants created a public nuisance by falsely marketing opioids and unlawfully supplying them in Miami, which allegedly unjustly enriched them at the expense of the City and its residents.
“We believe the pharmaceutical industry knowingly inflicted a great burden on the people of the City of Miami and our nation. This industry has been allowed to get away with this injustice for far too long,” said City Manager Emilio T. Gonzalez, Ph.D. “It is time that they are held accountable and remedy the devastating circumstances that they created.”
Opioid Impacts in Miami and Florida:
- In 2016, the City of Miami saw 641 opioid-related overdoses, up nearly 20 percent from the year before. That same year, the City of Miami Department of Fire-Rescue responded to 1,717 calls that involved Naloxone, an antidote to opioids, which increased by over a thousand calls from 2015, when there were 668 calls that involved Naloxone.
- According to publicly available ARCOS data, in Miami—with a population of 453,579 residents—in 2016, an average of 135 milligrams of oxycodone were distributed per resident. From 2010 to 2016, an average of 223 milligrams of oxycodone were distributed per every Miami resident. Notably, oxycodone was one of the opioids prescribed in large volume by doctors who were the subject of administrative complaints filed with the Florida Department of Health for improperly prescribing controlled substances.
- The City has faced a spike in fatal drug overdoses, and, according to the 2016 Florida Medical Examiners Commission Drug Report, a total of 541 people in Miami died of prescription drug-related deaths in 2015. The number of fatal perception drug-related overdoses rose by exactly 100 to 641 deaths in 2016. The CDC estimates that for every opioid-related death, there are 733 non-medical users.
- The majority of patients seeking treatment for opioid and heroin addiction in treatment centers in Miami started with an opioid prescription for pain.
Manufacturers mislead doctors
The complaint alleges that defendant manufacturers set out to – and did – persuade doctors that opioids, narcotic drugs that were prescribed only rarely because of their addictive properties, could be given safely to patients for a wide variety of common, chronic pain conditions, like back pain and arthritis. To overcome doctors’ reluctance, these companies, according to the complaint, denied and failed to disclose the risk that patients would become addicted to opioids, particularly with long-term use. They also overstated the benefits of the drugs in managing patients’ pain and improving their ability to function.
When evidence of addiction became impossible to deny, the complaint alleges that drug representatives from one of the manufacturers, Purdue Pharma, promoted abuse-deterrent formulations to Miami doctors, promising that the drugs were “safer” and had a “lower abuse potential” than other opioids, which is untrue and gave doctors the mistaken impression that they could prescribe these opioids without the same risk of addiction and abuse. Insys, which marketed a highly potent and dangerous opioid approved only for cancer pain, paid a single Miami doctor nearly $90,000 in speaking fees, which the complaint alleges was a thinly disguised kickback for prescribing its drug.
Failed to stop illicit use of opioids
The complaint alleges that companies that distributed opioids to pharmacies in Miami facilitated and failed to stop the diversion of opioids for illicit use. Under state and federal law, manufacturers and distributors of controlled substances have an obligation to detect, report, and reject suspicious orders. The complaint alleges that these companies failed to live up to their obligations, allowing opioids to be diverted for illicit use and deepening the toll of opioid use and abuse in Miami. In 2012, the DEA conducted an investigation into overprescribing and pill diversion throughout Florida, and filed charges against seven doctors, including at least one who practiced in Miami. Between the seven doctors, over two million oxycodone tables were dispensed in just one year. The complaint asserts that defendants knew or should have known of this obvious diversion and failed to report the conduct to law enforcement.
Earlier this year, the City retained an all-star team of 18 law firms to form a knowledgeable and experienced legal team tasked with tackling the City’s opioid epidemic. The firms were chosen by City Attorney Victoria Méndez, making Miami one of the first Florida cities and the largest city in the state to pursue litigation against opioid companies.