Moab resident Tara Wilder holds her 2013 Certificate of Graduation from the Grand County Felony Drug Court Program. She once struggled with an opioid use disorder that began with prescription medication. Today Wilder works with children and adults in the community as a case manager at Four Corners Community Behavioral Health. [Photo by Ashley Bunton / Moab Sun News]

“This is a case about a group of companies that put profit over people,” says the opening sentence of a suit the Grand County Attorney’s Office has filed against Purdue Pharma and more than a dozen other manufacturers and distributors of opioids.

Nationally prescription drug misuse and addiction has led to a 400-percent increase in opioid drug-related deaths since 2000, the suit claims. In 2015, the Utah Department of Health said an estimated 24 people died each month from prescription opioid-related causes in Utah.

Among the allegations listed in the court documents, manufacturers and distributors like Purdue Pharma, the creator of Oxycontin, conspired to mislead the local medical community on the dangerous nature of prescription narcotics to maximize profits. A media spokesperson from Purdue Pharma could not be reached for comment. The lawsuit asks for the amount of any resulting monetary award to be determined at trial.

One allegation says that the companies aggressively and unethically engaged in direct marketing to children as young as 6 years old as potential opioid users. Included in the complaint is a graphic of a promotional plush toy “for ages 3 and up.”

The pharmaceutical company Teva went as far to promote a narcotic lollipop for migraine pain, instead of cancer treatment as it had been approved for by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The complaint was filed on Nov. 8 in the 7th District Court by Grand County Attorney Andrew Fitzgerald and the law firm Durham, Jones and Pinegar in Lehi. Among the defendants named in the lawsuit are Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Cephalon, Inc., Allergan Sales, LLC, Watson Laboratories and Actavis Pharma. These manufacturers and distributors “convinced the medical community not only that opioids were safe and non-addictive, but that the best treatment for addiction was more opioids,” the suit alleges.

Grand County isn’t alone in filing suit against the companies. Fitzgerald said Grand County is just one of many counties to take action.

“There’s this whole movement across the country where municipalities and counties and governments are suing the opioid companies and those that pushed those drugs on all the patients and are trying to recover some costs from the damages done,” Fitzgerald said.

In an interview with the Moab Sun News on Dec. 4, Fitzgerald described some of the impacts that opioid prescription drug addiction has had on the communities in Grand County.

“When someone gets addicted, when we see them — with maybe a DUI or criminal charge — their complete life has collapsed when they have lost their job, had a divorce, family services are intervening and moving children out of the home,” Fitzgerald said. “Society, the community, has to cover all the costs to try to fix that. There are these really tragic stories about what happens to people who are addicted to these narcotics that are handed out like candy.”

Fitzgerald admitted the lawsuit “won’t solve the problem.”

“But it’s a place to start,” he said.

For Moab resident Tara Wilder, the lawsuit appears to be a step forward for the community.

Wilder, who now works as a case manager at Four Corners Community Behavioral Health, once had a substance abuse disorder. Her addiction to prescription narcotics began when she gave birth to her child by C-section.

“I got a couple of refills until the doctor said no, and then I started seeking them out … I bought them from people who had long-term medication prescribed to them,” Wilder said.

She acknowledged that a lawsuit against the opioid manufacturers and distributors can help to provide some accountability for the crisis, but emphasized that personal accountability is just as important.

“I think it’s sort of an individual responsibility to investigate the medication that you’re prescribed, but what I know, from the creator of Oxycontin and other drugs, they helped the public perceive there is no risk of addiction,” Wilder said. “They just tossed them out like candy from time to time.”

The lawsuit alleges that the companies which “flooded the market with opioid drugs” directly contributed to an increased demand in Grand County for mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Fitzgerald said the suit is an attempt to recover those costs associated with the treatment.

The suit asks for a monetary award “to be determined at trial,” and it could take a couple of years for a settlement to be reached ahead of trial. Any award for damages would be put into particular funds for mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment or law enforcement, Fitzgerald said, or it could go into the county’s general fund.

“It could also be a source of revenue to do something more than what we have, to add layers of treatment and prevention,” he said.

The number of people who have died in Grand County from drug-related deaths is relatively low when compared to statistics from other areas in the U.S. — opioids have been involved in 18 of 29 reported drug-related deaths in Grand County since 1999, the suit alleges.

“There are many people in our community that we are thinking about and who we were thinking about when we filed the lawsuit,” Fitzgerald said.

In the county’s complaint against the pharmaceutical companies, it says “Grand County must now stand up to these pharmaceutical giants and seek redress for the extensive damage they have caused its county.”

“Go Grand County,” Wilder said. “I think it’s necessary. … We want to heal our community and we want some accountability for the lives that have been lost and the families torn apart by this epidemic.”

The Southeast Utah Health Department and the Moab Regional Hospital have both taken steps in recent years to help people in the Moab area who are seeking treatment for substance misuse.

Brayden Bradford, director of the Southeast Utah Health Department, said the region has seen a significant increase in suicide due to opioid addiction, and the agency has put programs into place to address that.

“I think it’s important for our communities to be realistic that this is a problem, but I don’t want us to feel defeated,” Bradford said. “This is no longer a hidden issue or impossible to talk about … communities are working with citizen coalitions and faith-based coalitions that are teaming with agencies like the health department to form networks to strengthen individuals before they become addicted … and to help catch people who have been involved.”

The Moab Regional Hospital has created an addiction medicine program for narcotic-dependent residents in the area.

“It is partially charity-funded,” said Laurie Peter, the director of marketing at Moab Regional Hospital. “We do recognize the problem. We want to assist those who need the help in our community.”

Court documents say ‘pharmaceutical giants’ skewed information in conspiracy to mislead local medical community

“There are many people in our community that we are thinking about and who we were thinking about when we filed the lawsuit.”