After months of perceived inaction, a state lawmaker is calling on Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes to “lead out” and sue prescription drug companies for the damage the opioid crisis has inflicted.
“This is an epidemic,” said Rep. Michael McKell, R-Spanish Fork. “And it’s time for the state to move forward.”
Already, six counties in Utah — Cache, Davis, Salt Lake, Utah, Washington and Weber — have announced plans to sue the $11 billion pharmaceutical industry, citing criminal justice systems and social services overwhelmed by the widespread reach of addiction. So, McKell wonders, what’s taking the state so long to file a similar suit?
He hopes his HJR12, introduced Friday in the House, will force Reyes to action. “Our counties are leading out, but it should be our state,” he said.
A lawsuit would likely seek financial damages — possibly hundreds of millions of dollars — to repay the costs of treatment. McKell said it would also allege “deceptive marketing” on the part of companies for failing to disclose the high risk of addiction.
The attorney general, however, does not intend to rush into filing suit.
“[Reyes] has fire in his belly to file this kind of thing, but he’s also a prudent litigator,” said Spencer Austin, Reyes’ chief criminal deputy.
Utah is currently part of a 41-state coalition investigating opioid abuse and talking to manufacturers. Reyes plans to consider that information, as well as the potential cost to taxpayers, before deciding what to do next, Austin said. That might include joining another state’s filing — something McKell expressly argues against in his resolution, suggesting that Utah should instead “seek the maximum award for damages from prescription opioid manufacturers for [its] citizens.”
On average, 23 Utahns die each month from prescription opioid overdose, according to the Utah Department of Health. And the state is ranked seventh nationally for all overdose deaths, which outpace car crash fatalities.
In 2015, there were 22,000 deaths nationwide involving prescription opioids, which include morphine, methadone and oxycodone. Since then, more than 100 lawsuits have been filed nationally against drug companies; one manufacturer, Purdue Pharma, which makes the brand OxyContin, announced that as of Monday it will slash it sales staff and stop promoting opioids.
House Speaker Greg Hughes encouraged Utah counties to seek damages and hold pharmaceutical companies accountable during a November pitch to government leaders. McKell said “there’s a growing anxiety in the Legislature to see action from the attorney general.”
“Litigation is happening across the nation and Utah needs to be part of that.”