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Weber County joins legal fight against opioid makers

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

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

Patrick Sison, Associated Press

OGDEN — Weber County on Thursday joined the list of local governments in Utah suing opioid manufacturers, alleging they engaged in deceptive marketing practices that diminished the public's understanding of the risks associated with their products.

"This case is about one thing: corporate greed," the new lawsuit filed Thursday in 2nd District Court states. "Defendants put their desire for profits above the health, well-being, and safety of Weber County residents."

Salt Lake, Summit and Tooele counties have already filed similar lawsuits, and the Utah Attorney General's Office has promised to ramp up its opioid litigation with a new filing by the end of the month. Utah County has also announced its intentions to sue.

Weber County Attorney Chris Allred said Thursday that the lawsuit is "very similar to the suits already filed by other counties," and was submitted with the goal of recouping costs incurred by local governments' struggle to confront the crisis of opioid addiction.

"I would like to see the money spent (on problems) that have thus far been an expense for the taxpayer," Allred said.

Actavis, AmerisourceBergen Corp., Cardinal Health Cephalon, Cephalon Inc., Endo Pharmaceuticals, Insys Therapeutics, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, McKesson Corp., Purdue Pharma, and Teva Phemaceuticals are listed as defendants in the case, as are Drs. Perry Fine, Scott Fishman and Lynn Webster.

Multiple defendants reacted to a similar lawsuit filed against them last month by Salt Lake County, saying they had made proactive efforts to offer their own solutions to opioid addiction. One cited the promotion of opioids "with abuse-deterrent properties," while another criticized the allegations as "baseless" and said at the time that they include information with their products about their inherent risks.

Multiple attempts to reach Fine, Fishman and Webster for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.

The lawsuit does not seek a pre-established amount of damages.

Colin King, an attorney with the Salt Lake law firm Dewsnup King Olsen Worel Havas Mortensen, which is one of three outside legal teams carrying out the case on behalf of Weber County, said chances are high it will ultimately lead to a settlement before going to trial. King said there is a strong possibility that the case will eventually be added to a class action lawsuit with other counties around the United States.

"They're the ones paying for this," King said of county governments. "They're the ones that are feeling the pain of this crisis."

He added that his law firm has recently been working with a new county "every week" as several more local governments throughout the state prepare to sue. King's firm is also involved in the Summit County and Tooele County lawsuits.

Weber County Commissioner James Ebert said that aside from financial considerations, he hopes the case and others like it will serve as a deterrent to opioid manufacturers' allegedly deceptive public messaging tactics.

"The marketing has to be fixed by those who are making the drugs," Ebert said.

He said for residents who become addicted, "trying to get them help is extremely expensive" for counties. But the costs aren't the only reason communities are frustrated, he said.

"There's the financial component to this, but there's also the community component — what it does to individuals and families," Ebert said.

Weber County's expenditures have been affected in several ways as a result of increasing opioid addiction, the lawsuit alleges.

"As a direct and foreseeable consequence of defendants' wrongful conduct, (Weber County) has been required to spend substantial funds each year in its efforts to combat the public nuisance created by defendants' deceptive marketing campaign," the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit also claims the defendants "trivialized or obscured (opioids') serious risks and adverse outcomes" in their public messaging, "including the risk of addiction, overdose, and death."

"Defendants persuaded doctors and patients that what they had long understood — that opioids are addictive drugs and safe in most circumstances — was untrue, and to the contrary, that the compassionate treatment of pain required opioids."

The lawsuit also cites data indicating Utah has the seventh-highest fatal opioid overdose rate in the country, and that Weber County's rate is above the state average.