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'It does not care what it consumes': Utah County joins federal lawsuit in fight against opioid crisis

FILE - This Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 file photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York.
FILE - This Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 file photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York.
Patrick Sison, Associated Press

PROVO — Utah County joined a growing list Monday of cities and counties filing federal lawsuits accusing major pharmaceutical companies of fueling the opioid epidemic.

During a news conference to announce the lawsuit, Commissioner Bill Lee compared opioids to the wildfires that recently caused widespread evacuations and panic in the county.

"Just like (fire), there is a proper use for opioids. If it's managed appropriately, it can help. It can help the healing process," Lee said.

"But if it's left to run like a wildfire, like we've seen in our county itself, it will run through lives, it will run through communities … and it does not care what it consumes."

He said the lawsuit will be a step in the process of fighting the epidemic, which will also include community education.

According to attorney Matthew Muir of the Jones Waldo law firm, "Utah County has been particularly hard-hit by the opioid epidemic."

"We're here to hold (pharmaceutical companies) to account and make sure that they play a role in coming up with solutions as well," Muir said.

Muir said the lawsuit is asking major companies for financial damages as well as solutions, including medications that can be used to wean people off opioids.

During the conference, Commissioner Nathan Ivie told a story about getting into an accident at Alta ski resort.

"I'd completely blown out my knee," he said. When he decided to get surgery, his doctor "had a skill set and the information and the talent to help me heal … and I knew that he would take care of me, and he did that," Ivie said.

The county commissioner said his doctor made sure he got off pain medication as soon as possible after the surgery.

"Unfortunately, my doctor is actually often the exception and not the rule," he said.

"The reason is a lot of big pharmaceutical companies have used their propaganda to promote falsehoods to our medical professionals. This has led to drastic overprescription of opioids and other harmful and addictive drugs into our society that have destroyed countless lives."

He said a "strong body of evidence" indicates that drug manufacturers knew how addictive opioids can be and "the damage they could cause to lives."

"But rather than making that information known, they suppressed the information, they suppressed the research. And as a result, they broke trust and damaged lives to the point of death of many," Ivie said.

He said in Utah County, there is a "staggering rate" of mothers, including pregnant mothers, and elderly people who have become addicted to opioids.

"What's ironic is too often when you go talk to these people, they don't understand they're addicted because they got some type of prescription drug from their doctor for pain and they don't make the connection," Ivie said.

Lee emphasized that people with opioid addictions shouldn't be shamed.

"This is our soccer moms, this is our neighbors next door. It's all around us. Let's bring it out in the open … let's find solutions to it."