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Campbell, Knox Among Counties Suing Big Pharma



Even as a fight that could lead to a quick end to a new push to sue pharmaceutical companies over the opioid epidemic in Tennessee is brewing, more state prosecutors are jumping into the legal fray.

The top prosecutors for five judicial districts encompassing 15 East Tennessee counties are joining their counterparts in three Upper East Tennessee districts in trying to use the legal system to hold the makers of opiate-based prescription drugs financially responsible for the state’s opioid addiction problem.

Prosecutors Charme Allen, Dave Clark, Jared Effler, Russell Johnson and Stephen Crump are suing opioid drugmakers Purdue Pharma, Mallinckrodt and Endo Pharmaceuticals. Their districts range from Allen’s Knox County to Crump’s Bradley County.

They’re joining the top prosecutors in three Upper East Tennessee jurisdictions, ranging from Greene County to Sullivan County, in filing such action.

Follow the money

The effort is being driven by a Nashville law firm with a public relations team in place, according to records reviewed by USA TODAY NETWORK Tennessee.

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A public relations specialist for the firm, Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, said no taxpayer dollars are being spent on the lawsuits, but the statement did not say who is shelling out the filing fees, which run hundreds of dollars. The statement said expenses would be recouped if they win the lawsuit. It uses a page from the playbook of Big Tobacco settlements that resulted in warning labels on cigarettes and even today funds state governments, including Tennessee. But it’s also relying on a law that has long been considered a legal joke — Tennessee’s so-called “crack tax.” Already, the drugmakers named in those lawsuits want them taken out of Tennessee’s courts and placed in the jurisdiction of the federal judicial system. If they win, Big Pharma will get an instant legal boost from a federal legal system that makes it tough — and more expensive for taxpayers — to wage war against corporations.

The newest lawsuit, like the first one, relies on the state’s Drug Dealer Liability Act. It was dubbed the “crack tax” because of a provision Tennessee’s revenue department used when it tried and failed to collect a sales tax of sorts from crack cocaine dealers who were arrested.

To use that law, each lawsuit must target a convicted drug dealer and, in the case of prescription drugs, a medical provider, and have an identifiable victim, the more innocent the better.

Checking off the legal boxes

In the newest lawsuit, the primary drug dealer listed as an opiate purveyor is Joshua Hurst, recently convicted and imprisoned for using and selling oxycodone and its pain-killing ilk while wearing a Knoxville Police Department uniform. It also includes a pill mill shut down in Oak Ridge last year. As its required victims, the newest lawsuit cites two Campbell County babies born addicted to opiates because of their teenage mothers’ addictions to the prescription painkillers and the treatment drugs opiate makers also put on the market.

Big Pharma has been donating to local governments, including Campbell County and Knox County, monthly doses of a drug that is supposed to block the high opiate addicts experience. It costs roughly $1,500 every month, and the same company that makes opiates also makes the claimed cure. Now, those same local governments are suing those same drug companies.

The newest lawsuit was filed in Campbell County Circuit Court. But there’s no clear connection between each of the 15 counties that would make them joint parties to the same legal action. That makes it ripe for the drugmakers’ attorneys to seek to push it into federal court as they’ve already sought to do in the first lawsuit. The drugmakers anticipated the legal action with statements saying the effort to blame them for opiate addiction was misplaced and a money grab.

Attorney general unswayed — so far

Tennessee itself has not jumped into the legal battle. Spokeswoman Leigh Ann Jones said Attorney General Herbert S. Slatery isn’t ready to commit taxpayer dollars to a legal fight with Big Pharma, which has deep legal pockets.

“This office is engaged in an active multistate investigation of opioid manufacturers,” she said. “At this point, we think this is the best approach to the problem. We have not ruled out litigation and the manufacturers know that. But we are convinced that the state is best served in the way we are currently approaching the matter.”

The lawsuits seek to hold Big Pharma responsible for the opioid epidemic in Tennessee by labeling the drugmakers as drug dealers and accusing them of lying about the addictive properties of opiates and aggressively pushing the drugs as miracle cures for all manner of pain.

Tennessee No. 2 on addiction list

Tennessee logs more opiate prescriptions per capita than any state in the nation except West Virginia. Sullivan County is considered an epicenter, so much so that its law enforcement agencies snared their own reality television shows. The lawsuits come on the heels of similar governmental legal action filed in Ohio, Illinois, Mississippi, New York and California. The Cherokee Nation in May sued in tribal court. Another lawsuit filed in Washington in January alleged that Purdue Pharma, makers of OxyContin, knew the drug was being sold on the streets and did nothing to stop it. Purdue, based in New York, has annual sales of nearly $3 billion. Mallinckrodt, based in the United Kingdom and makers of opiates Roxicodone and oxycodone, and Endo, based in Pennsylvania and the maker of Opana, Percocet and Zydone, also rack up billions each year from opiate sales.

Big Tobacco redux

Such lawsuits borrow a page from the playbook state attorneys general used to hit Big Tobacco with the financial cost of its addictive products in 1998. States made billions and still are, money that was supposed to go to help people quit smoking and cover the government’s medical bills for the physical toll cigarettes caused. The big cigarette makers agreed to pay out $206 billion in the first 25 years, and they’ll keep paying indefinitely after that.

It hasn’t stopped people from smoking, or the tobacco makers from making money. But public awareness of the addictive properties of tobacco and the stew of chemicals used in cigarettes has lowered the number of smokers over time.

“This office is engaged in an active multistate investigation of opioid manufacturers. At this point, we think this is the best approach to the problem. We have not ruled out litigation and the manufacturers know that.”

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