Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Bensalem to be first Philly-area town to sue drugmakers over fueling opioid epidemic

The suits are part of a growing movement to force drugmakers to change their practices.

Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, is one of the manufacturers that is expected to be named in the suit.
Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, is one of the manufacturers that is expected to be named in the suit.Read moreLiz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times/TNS

Bensalem Township plans to sue pharmaceutical manufacturers in the hope of recouping tens of millions of dollars spent fighting an opioid epidemic that officials say was fueled by greedy drug companies.

Officials of the Bucks County township  said they looked forward to becoming the first municipality in the Philadelphia region to join a small but growing list of states, counties, and towns seeking to slow the epidemic by forcing drug companies to pay.

"Do you know what it's like when he calls me at 10 at night," DiGirolamo said, referring to the police chief, "and says, 'Mayor, we had two overdoses today, one of them fatal?' "

Nonfatal overdoses in the township have risen 556 percent in a decade, officials said, and were in the hundreds last year; dozens died. Drug arrests increased 156 percent. Related police and emergency medical services alone have "cost Bensalem Township residents tens of millions of tax dollars," officials said in a news release.

The suit, like others filed by Chicago, two California counties, the State of Ohio, and scattered municipalities, names four pharmaceutical manufacturers and related entities. By far the best known is  Stamford, Conn.-based Purdue Pharma, which began marketing extended-release OxyContin in the mid-1990s, and whose executives have pleaded guilty to charges related to misleading physicians about the drug's benefits and potential for addiction.

The three other manufacturers are located in the Philadelphia region or close to it: Johnson & Johnson's Janssen Pharmaceuticals, based in Titusville, N.J., which marketed Nucynta; Teva Pharmaceuticals, which has North American headquarters in North Wales and owns Cephalon Inc., maker of the fentanyl "lollipop" Actiq; and Endo Pharmaceuticals of Malvern, which voluntarily removed its Opana ER from the market in July at the request of the Food and Drug Administration.

The suits — and others targeting national distributors such as Chesterbrook-based AmerisourceBergen — are part of a growing movement to force manufacturers to change their practices and also reimburse localities for expenses such as police activity related to addiction, especially heroin.

Research shows that most new heroin users report having started on painkillers, usually with a prescription from a physician.

"I believe that 75 to 80 percent of all of the crime that we prosecute here in Bucks County is driven or fueled by alcohol or drug use or addiction," District Attorney Matthew D. Weintraub said. The crimes include DUI and possession cases as well as stealing, prostitution, and burglarizing, he said. While not involved with the township's action, Weintraub said he supported it.

"It seems to me that while the drug companies seem to be interested in profit and loss, we're battling life and death, and the drug companies are at least in part responsible for enabling so many people to become addicted to these opiates, and therefore they should bear some responsibility for helping us get out of this scourge," Weintraub said.

A spokesman for Purdue Pharma said in an email: "While we vigorously deny the allegations, we share Bensalem Township officials' concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions."

A Teva spokeswoman wrote that the company was "committed to the appropriate promotion and use of opioids" and runs educational programs for "prescribers, pharmacists, and patients on the responsible and safe use of these products. We are committed to working with the health-care community, regulators and public officials to collaboratively find solutions."

Janssen said that "opioid abuse is a serious public health issue that must be addressed" but that the allegations "are both legally and factually unfounded. Janssen has acted responsibly and in the best interests of patients and physicians with regard to these medicines, which are FDA-approved and carry FDA-mandated warnings about possible risks on every product label."

Bensalem, with 62,000 residents, has long struggled with addiction. It shares a border with Philadelphia and sits astride the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I-95, and Route 1. Just last month a woman was arrested for abandoning her 7-month-old baby in a Route 1 motel room littered with needles.

Opioids were largely unknown to the general public in 2001, when a Bensalem doctor named Richard G. Paolino was arrested and charged with running a cash practice that distributed hundreds of thousands of OxyContin tablets. The case was chronicled in a three-part Inquirer series. When he was convicted and sentenced to at least 30 years in prison, the judge called his penchant for supplying highly addictive drugs to patients with minor physical ailments "akin to killing a mouse with an atom bomb." Paolino, 74, remains at the Houtzdale Correctional Institution, west of State College.

Over the years, State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R., Bucks), the mayor's nephew, has given speeches on the floor of the House and submitted numerous bills, most recently one that would raise money to expand treatment by imposing a 10 percent impact fee on opioids sold in Pennsylvania.

"These drug companies have to take responsibility for what went on and what is going on. If they won't, we have to force them," said Rep. DiGirolamo, whose son is in recovery from heroin.

DiGirolamo said that his wish would be that multiple suits across the country lead to a master settlement like that negotiated with the tobacco industry.

That would be "the companies' biggest fear," said Roseann B. Termini, an adjunct professor at Widener University Delaware Law School and author of the textbook Food and Drug Law.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced in June that he is among the leaders of a group of more than 40 states that are aiming to do just that. New Jersey reportedly is among them.

In a statement released Wednesday, Shapiro said, "This is a big fight and it takes the chief law enforcement officers of states around the country working together to win it."

The Bensalem suit is expected to be filed in state court within several weeks.