In a legal first, Camden County files racketeering suit against OxyContin makers

Camden County is joining the legal fight against the opioid epidemic — but with an unprecedented argument.

The county is filing a racketeering lawsuit against several pharmaceutical companies, as well as naming three individuals of the Sackler family, which owns Connecticut-based Purdue Pharma — the maker of OxyContin — as defendants.

“In the hour that it takes to read this complaint, six Americans will fatally overdose from opioids, two opioid-dependent babies will be born and a significant number of former opioid addicts will turn to heroin,” the introduction to the 177-page lawsuit reads.

“During that same hour, opioid manufacturers will earn approximately $2.7 million from opioids. The opioid addiction epidemic was ignited by the Sackler family.”

Freeholder Louis Cappelli Jr. announced the lawsuit alongside other federal and state representatives Wednesday morning in a news conference in Camden.

While Purdue Pharma has been under attack and the subject of other legal action during the explosion of the opioid epidemic crisis, both the racketeering element of the suit and the naming of individuals are firsts.

“Owners of Purdue Pharma, and peddlers of OxyContin, the Sackler family executed an epic scheme to deceive doctors (and the public at large) into believing that opioids can be prescribed for long periods of time, with little to no risk of addiction; a blatantly false premise,” the suit said. “The Sackler family’s fraudulent and deceptive marketing scheme worked, and sales for OxyContin skyrocketed, resulting in billions of dollars for Purdue and its top executives — including Richard, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler.”

The Sackler family’s wealth and its involvement in the making and marketing of OxyContin have been documented in multiple reports since 2015. Purdue Pharma previously paid a $600 million fine in 2007 over misleading marketing of the addictive drug. The company announced it would halt marketing of the drug recently.

The lawsuit also goes after other pain medicine makers and their distributors and retailers, including Janssen Pharmaceuticals (a division of New Brunswick-based Johnson & Johnson), Teva Pharmaceuticals, Insys Therapeutics, Endo International, Abbott Laboratories and Cephalon Inc., Mallinckrodt, AmeriSource Bergen, Cardinal Health, Costco, Walgreens, Rite Aid and others.

Coincidentally, the lawsuit was filed on the heels of Independence Blue Cross in Philadelphia and its affiliates, including Cranbury-based AmeriHealth New Jersey, announcing that they are taking on the full cost burden of Narcan, the brand of the opioid overdose reversal drug, until the end of the year for all members.

In the lawsuit, the county explains the burden of the epidemic on its police force, as well as highlights the use of Narcan.

“In 2016 and 2017, the Camden County Police Department expended 1,740 man-hours responding to 941 opioid overdoses. And, despite administering Narcan 141 times, there were 131 opioid overdose fatalities (90 of which occurred in 2017). While deaths are on the rise in Camden County, since 2014, the Camden County Police Department has saved 312 lives by administering Narcan to those who have overdosed on opioids. But, even so, opioid related deaths are on the rise,” the suit reads.

U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross (D-NJ), who serves as vice chair of the Congressional Bipartisan Heroin Task Force, also highlighted the overdose deaths in his statement.

“In New Jersey, deaths from heroin and fentanyl overdoses more than tripled in the last five years. That’s tragic and unacceptable,” he said. “Camden County, led by Freeholder Director Cappelli, has been fighting to curb the opioid epidemic on all fronts and knows we must do all we can to help those struggling with the disease of addiction. There is true human cost that’s at stake.”

At the media conference, Cappelli highlighted the effects of the epidemic, including a barrier to medication for those who do actually need pain medication. State laws have restricted the number of days a prescription can be filled, and doctors are increasingly less willing to write opioid prescriptions.

While the country tries to curb the epidemic, the companies and the Sackler family — which holds the patent for the drug — have made billions.

“These individuals were knowingly poisoning our families and children and doing it all under the guise of pain management, when we really know it was all based on greed,” Cappelli said. “This was a transparent flooding of the marketplace going back to 1995, when the FDA approved Oxy, and has ended with their latest announcement that Purdue will no longer market this deadly, addictive narcotic. Our families in Camden County deserve more, and today is the first step in making these defendants pay for their criminal behavior.”