Following Salt Lake County’s lead, five more Utah counties plan suits against opioid makers

House Speaker Greg Hughes issued a call to action that appears to be resonating. He hopes more join the effort.<br>

(AP file photo) OxyContin pills arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt.

Just about a month ago, Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes made a pitch to county governments struggling to deal with the havoc wreaked by opioid addiction statewide: Why not sue the $11 billion pharmaceutical industry that brought the problem to Utah’s door?

Little did the Draper Republican know how quickly county governments would get on board.

At least five counties — Cache, Davis, Utah, Washington and Weber — have so far passed, or are considering, resolutions to take legal action against Big Pharma, said Lincoln Shurtz, director of external relations for the Utah Association of Counties (UAC).

The wave followed a Nov. 14 announcement that Salt Lake County planned to sue. A few days later, Hughes took his message to elected officials at the annual UAC meeting in St. George.

“Everyone recognizes this is an issue that has affected their communities,” said Shurtz. “So there was an immediate response to go out and pass resolutions.”

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Lincoln Shurtz with the Utah Association of Counties hands members of the House Business and Labor Standing Committee a couple of bottles of Alcopop, soda that contains alcohol, during a hearing regarding the regulation of alcohol at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2017.

Hughes is more than pleased by the response and hopes other will follow suit.

“If we have 29 counties say we’re ready to do something about this, that would be very good news,” the speaker said. “And it would be a very powerful statement.”

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune House Speaker Greg Hughes runs through the bills on the final night of the Legislative session on Thursday, March 10, 2016.

More than 100 cities, counties and states across the nation have already done what Utah communities now intend to do: file lawsuits they hope will allow them to recoup their costs for increased law enforcement, criminal justice, drug treatment and other social services.

In many cases, the lawsuits allege drug companies used deceptive marketing and lied to medical practitioners and consumers about the likelihood of addiction associated with opioid use.

Nationally, about 91 Americans die each day from opioid-related drug overdose deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

In Utah, state data from 2015 found that 24 Utahns per month — or nearly one person every day — died from an overdose.

County-specific data gathered by health officials between 2011 and 2016 puts an even finer point on the local problem.

During that five-year window, Salt Lake County saw the greatest total number of overdose deaths, with 638. Utah County was second with 259, followed by 184 in Weber County, 133 in Davis County, 37 in Cache and 14 in Washington County.

It’s the human toll that has spurred governments into action, Utah County Commission Chairman Bill Lee said.

Lee said he began studying the problem some months ago, after hearing stories about the damage to families — including his own. An extended family member has struggled with an addiction to painkillers prescribed for a health condition, he said.

“Every time I’d start digging more into this, I’d just shake my head and say, ‘What in the world?’” Lee said. “How did this get so far out of control?”

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah County Commission Chair Bill Lee, center, and Commissioner Nathan Ivy hold a commission meeting Tuesday Dec. 12 in Provo. Missing in chair at left was Commission Vice-Chair Greg Graves. Graves participated by teleconference. This was the first Utah County Commission meeting following the release of a sexual harassment complaint and investigation that showed many county employees feel Commissioner Greg Graves is considered a bully with explosive behavior who retaliated against an employee. Several people have called for his resignation.

Talks with jail, substance abuse and public health officials about the impact on county services prompted the commission to pass its own November resolution.

“I swore an oath to protect the citizens of Utah County,” Lee said. “This is part of that oath.”

Weber County commissioners took action three weeks ago and now are talking to their county attorney about how to proceed, Commissioner James Ebert said.

The process could take more than a year and include joining forces with other counties or going it alone, he said.

Davis County commissioners are weighing similar options in preparation for a resolution, Commissioner Jim Smith said.

“It’s not a question of whether we are going to do this,” he said. “It’s a matter of when.”

Smith expressed some hope that mounting pressure from lawsuits might persuade drug companies to change their practices and settle the disputes before even stepping inside a courtroom. Either way, he said, his county is prepared to take the issue on full bore even though it may take years for the lawsuits play out.

“Everybody knows somebody that is touched by the opioid epidemic, but everybody thinks someone else is going to do something. We think that’s part of the role of government.”

Washington County officials did not return a call seeking comment on Wednesday and Cache County said its council is considering a lawsuit but has not yet decided how it wants to proceed.