Summit becomes the first county in Utah to sue opioid industry over addiction epidemic

FILE - In this Aug. 5, 2010, file photo, a pharmacy technician poses for a picture with hydrocodone and acetaminophen tablets, also known as Vicodin, at the Oklahoma Hospital Discount Pharmacy in Edmond, Okla. Opioids including Vicodin and fentanyl patches worked no better than Tylenol and other over-the-counter pills at relieving chronic back pain and hip and knee arthritis in a year-long study of mostly men at Minneapolis VA clinics. Both groups had slight improvement. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

As pharmaceutical companies dump tens of millions of dollars into the coffers of lawmakers throughout the country annually, the number of opioid prescriptions written has skyrocketed.

On that path to making billions of dollars, Big Pharma has left a trail of dead bodies — victims of accidental overdoses from the synthetic heroin.

In an effort to curb what has been labeled an epidemic in Utah, Summit County sued 25 companies and individuals it believes caused a flood of opioids in the county. Summit County became the first county in the state to do so, though others have talked about doing the same.

The lawsuit was filed in 3rd District Court. It targets manufacturers, distributors and doctors.

The county alleges the opioid industry lied about the danger of long-term use of opioids.

“These drug manufacturers and distributors reaped the financial benefits in the billions of dollars and now they should be financially responsible for the opioid crisis facing our communities,” County Attorney Margaret Olson said in a news release.

The move is part of a budding trend of local jurisdictions looking to recoup the millions spent on combating the epidemic over the past decade. And it’s a change from the relationship Big Pharma has long had with American lawmakers.

Last year, Salt Lake County said it planned to file a similar lawsuit, though it has not yet done so. The Utah Legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill asking Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to file a suit on behalf of the state. While Reyes has said he is considering action, he has yet to sue the drug makers.

Lawmakers have long been accused of being in the pocket of opioid manufacturers and distributors. In the past decade, the opioid industry has donated $2.5 billion to lobbying members of the U.S. Congress, according to The Guardian. Since then, opioid-related deaths have increased five fold.

During that time, opioid deaths have skyrocketed. In 2016, synthetic opioids killed 20,145 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heroin killed another 15,446 and natural or semi-synthetic opioids killed 14,427. Methadone, a drug used to help ween addicts from opioids, killed 3,314 people. Combined, that accounts for 53,332 of the total 64,000 drug overdose deaths in the country that year.

Utah and Summit County are not immune from that trend. Utah ranks seventh in the country in opioid deaths, according to the lawsuit. In 2014, a third of Utah adults had a prescription for an opioid painkiller.

In addition to companies, the lawsuit goes after four doctors, two being Salt Lake City-based. Perry Fine and Lynn Webster are both accused of being “instrumental” to the promotion and sale of the drugs in Summit County, Utah and the nation as a whole.

The two have been linked to the national epidemic, and have been sued in Illinois.