Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes marshals Utah counties to sue Big Pharma

He says drug companies lied about the likelihood of addiction from prescription pain meds.<br>

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) House Speaker Greg Hughes in the House Chamber at the State Capitol Building in Salt Lake City, Tuesday March 3, 2015.

Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes is on a new campaign trail — this time not for public office, but to encourage counties statewide to bring lawsuits to hold big drug companies accountable for the damage the opioid crisis has inflicted on Utahns.

“We must take this fight to those who have profited by making blatantly false claims that have adversely affected Utahns lives,” Hughes said in a news release Thursday. “Utah has an important and unique story that needs to be shared. Now is the time to act.”

Hughes made his pitch Thursday afternoon in a speech to government leaders gathered for the two-day Utah Association of Counties annual conference in St. George.

It’s the third time this week that the speaker has publicly championed legal action against the $11 billion pharmaceutical industry, which he said lied to consumers and physicians in marketing the painkillers as “rarely addictive.”

On Monday, Hughes stood alongside Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, as the Democratic mayor announced his plans to bring a civil lawsuit against the pharmaceutical industry.

That was followed on Tuesday with a letter thanking the Utah County Commission for adopting a resolution to seek its own suit that same day.

“We need to hold these drug manufacturers accountable county by county and state by state,” Hughes wrote in a letter obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune. “Thank you again for your attention to this critical issue.”

Lawmakers have passed 12 bills related to opioid regulations during the past two legislative sessions, and have committed tens of millions in state funds to attack the problem on multiple levels, from law enforcement to treatment and social services, Hughes’ letter to Utah County leaders notes.

“We cannot keep up with the growing toll of lives lost,” he wrote. Hughes contends that every county in Utah should consider engaging in litigation because each has been harmed in some way.

Tackling the opioid and drug addiction crisis in Utah is also directly tied to Operation Rio Grande, the multi-agency plan to address homelessness and lawlessness, including open-air drug use and sales in downtown Salt Lake City. Hughes has been a forceful proponent of the two-year plan which carries a $67 million price tag.

Statistical data for Utah offer a staggering and sobering truth, he said Monday and again in the Utah County letter: Four of five Utahns addicted to heroin started through prescribed opioid pain medication.

State health department data also show that, on average, 24 Utahns died from prescription opioid overdose in each month of 2015. And between 2013 to 2015 Utah’s growing number of deaths left the state ranked seventh nationally for overdose deaths by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, according to the CDC.

Nationally, more than 100 similar lawsuits have already been filed against drug companies by states, counties and municipalities since 2015.

The suits typically seek financial damages sufficient to pay for the increased costs of addiction-related criminal justice, drug treatment and social services, alleging consumer or Medicaid fraud on the part of companies for failing to disclose the high likelihood of addiction or causing the government insurance plan to pay for unnecessary painkiller prescriptions.