OSWEGO — In an effort to recover costs related to the opioid epidemic, Oswego County officials have entered into a lawsuit against various pharmaceutical companies and other parties they claim are responsible for the rise in heroin and opioid abuse in recent years.
Legislators last week agreed to have the New York City-based law firm Simmons Hanly Conroy LLC, which has already begun similar litigation for eight other counties in the state, represent the county.
County officials and attorneys at Simmons Hanly Conroy argue certain drug manufacturers knew of the addictive nature of opioids and falsely marketed them as safe and non-addictive. The plaintiffs are seeking compensation for past costs and future anticipated costs as a result of the opioid problem.
Attorney Paul Hanly said the opioid epidemic began with “false representations” in the mid-1990s, and noted rural counties have been “decimated both economically and socially by this plague.”
“It has been a civil conspiracy of these companies to change the entire perception — the accurate one of 100 years — that opioid-based meds are inherently addictive,” Hanly said. “It was the success of these companies to flip that completely on its head that has put us where we are today.”
County Administrator Phil Church and other officials have said the county has spent significant sums of money as result of the opioid epidemic, including the costs of police and emergency responders, incarcerating offenders, health care and social services.
“It affects everything,” Church said of the drug crisis. “(This lawsuit) tries to reimburse taxpayers the cost of dealing with opioid addiction.”
The pharmaceutical companies’ “false representations” began in 1995 when Purdue Pharma (one of several targets named in the lawsuit) introduced OxyContin and “created an entire body of false science” and “fake statistics,” according to Hanly.
He said other manufacturers saw Purdue’s revenue rise substantially and jumped on the bandwagon.
“We’re looking for Oswego to get back millions of dollars in costs and looking for companies to help counties moving forward,” Hanly said of the lawsuit.
Minority Leader Frank Castiglia, D-Fulton, said he and fellow Democrats “fully support” the litigation.
Castiglia pointed out the county’s cost to initiate the lawsuit is contingent on winning the case, so there’s no financial risk in entering litigation.
“We can’t lose anything,” he said. “We can only win.”
Legislator John Proud, R-Mexico, who chairs the county’s Health Committee, said the rise in opioid abuse has “affected the county in a number of ways” and specifically pointed to law enforcement.
“We have many people incarcerated for drug offenses,” Proud said. “Every year we have to ante-up extra funding because the jails are full.”
Proud said opioid abuse also “plays a big part” in the county’s health outcomes and factors, which over the past several years have been among the worst in the state.
“It’s affected us in the health areas as well,” Proud said. “We do quite a bit through the health department in trying to combat opioid abuse, but there seems to be very limited success in that area.”
Castiglia and Proud both mentioned the need for more local treatment options available to those seeking help. Proud said the ability to get people into treatment “without having a months-long wait” would be a “big factor” in helping to curb drug use.
Church said the litigation “could take years,” and noted it is similar to previous lawsuits, including those against tobacco manufacturers, which resulted in municipalities receiving financial compensation for damages caused by smoking and other forms of tobacco.
Hanly said “the opioid crisis is the tobacco crisis of the 21st century,” and said drug manufacturers have done the “exact same thing” tobacco companies did promoting “false science” that claimed the products were not addictive or harmful.