As the 2018 Legislative session opened, House Speaker Greg Hughes issued a “call to arms” and declared war on Big Pharma and opiate marketers. The session is now halfway through, and lawmakers are working to follow up on this promise.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 10-0 Wednesday to send HJR012 to the floor. The resolution calls on Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to file suit against opioid manufacturers. If Reyes did sue, Utah would join 16 other states and several Utah counties that are seeking legal recourse against the opioid industry.

“We have an absolute crisis in America. It’s a crisis we have in Utah,” said resolution sponsor Rep. Mike K. McKell. “We have done tremendous work in the Legislature dealing with opioid abuse, and I think more needs to be done.”

The joint resolution alleges, among many things, that prescription opioid manufacturers have downplayed the risks of addiction, claimed that withdrawal and dependence symptoms are easily managed and denied any risks associated with higher opiate dosages. The resolution further accuses prescription opiate manufacturers of using “false and deceptive” marketing and citing false research to “deceive doctors and health care providers.”

“Tobacco companies did exactly [the same],” said Rep. Bruce R. Cultler, R-Murray. “They were deceptive, they were getting people addicted and I believe it is well time that we go after these companies. Opioids obviously have their use and their benefit to relieve pain, but companies, sometimes, are after the almighty dollar.”

According to the Department of Health, the distribution rate of prescription opioids in Utah rose 29.4 percent from 2002 to 2015 with the average patient possessing nearly five opiate prescriptions. This rise was accompanied by a 400 percent increase in deaths related to prescription drug abuse from 2000 to 2015.

“Far more needs to be done,” said McKell. “We still lose, on average, 24.5 people every single month in the state of Utah to prescription drugs.”

Some members of the committee felt the resolution should be expanded to include physicians.

“My frustration has been that the drug pushers wear white lab coats now,” said Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan. “We let the docs off in [this resolution] by not recognizing their responsibility in addicting people and keeping them addicted.”

McKell said he hopes to keep that conversation alive for future debate and legislation.

“If [doctors] were part of the plot, I think they ought to share in the responsibility,” he said.

Reyes has to date not expressed much interest in filing suit. His office is part of a 41-state coalition of attorneys general investigating opioid abuse and talking to manufacturers.

Feb. 12 : This state lawmaker wants to force the Utah attorney general to prescription opioid manufacturers

By Courtney Tanner

After months of perceived inaction, a state lawmaker is calling on Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to “lead out” and sue prescription drug companies for the damage the opioid crisis has inflicted.

“This is an epidemic,” said Rep. Michael McKell, R-Spanish Fork. “And it’s time for the state to move forward.”

Already, six counties in Utah — Cache, Davis, Salt Lake, Utah, Washington and Weber — have announced plans to sue the $11 billion pharmaceutical industry, citing criminal justice systems and social services overwhelmed by the widespread reach of addiction. So, McKell wonders, what’s taking the state so long to file a similar suit?

He hopes his HJR12, introduced Friday in the House, will force Reyes to action. “Our counties are leading out, but it should be our state,” he said.

A lawsuit would likely seek financial damages — possibly hundreds of millions of dollars — to repay the costs of treatment. McKell said it would also allege “deceptive marketing” on the part of companies for failing to disclose the high risk of addiction.

The attorney general, however, does not intend to rush into filing suit.

“[Reyes] has fire in his belly to file this kind of thing, but he’s also a prudent litigator,” said Spencer Austin, Reyes’ chief criminal deputy.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Attorney Sean Reyes speaks to students during an event hosted by the Utah College Republicans in the State Capitol in Salt Lake City Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018.

Utah is currently part of a 41-state coalition investigating opioid abuse and talking to manufacturers. Reyes plans to consider that information, as well as the potential cost to taxpayers, before deciding what to do next, Austin said. That might include joining another state’s filing — something McKell expressly argues against in his resolution, suggesting that Utah should instead “seek the maximum award for damages from prescription opioid manufacturers for [its] citizens.”

On average, 23 Utahns die each month from prescription opioid overdose, according to the Utah Department of Health. And the state is ranked seventh nationally for all overdose deaths, which outpace car crash fatalities.

In 2015, there were 22,000 deaths nationwide involving prescription opioids, which include morphine, methadone and oxycodone. Since then, more than 100 lawsuits have been filed nationally against drug companies; one manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, which makes the brand OxyContin, announced that as of Monday it will slash it sales staff and stop promoting opioids.

House Speaker Greg Hughes encouraged Utah counties to seek damages and hold pharmaceutical companies accountable during a November pitch to government leaders. McKell said “there’s a growing anxiety in the Legislature to see action from the attorney general.”

“Litigation is happening across the nation and Utah needs to be part of that.”