States Push Ahead With Investigation Into Opioid Painkillers

By Thomas MacMillan Features Dow Jones Newswires

A bipartisan group of states investigating the opioid painkiller industry and the causes of widespread addiction has stepped up its probe with a fresh demand for documents from drugmakers and distributors.

Continue Reading Below

States including New York, California and Tennessee announced the moves, saying a group of 41 attorneys general served subpoenas on manufacturers Endo International PLC, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., Allergan PLC, and Purdue Pharma.

They also demanded documents from the three companies that account for about 90% of the country's opioid distribution: AmerisourceBergen Corp., Cardinal Health, and McKesson Corp.

"For millions of Americans, their personal battle with opioid addiction did not start in a back alley with a tourniquet and syringe," New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said at a press conference. "They got hooked on medicine they were prescribed for pain or that they found in a medicine cabinet."

The investigation marks the latest step in an investigation publicly announced by attorneys general this summer.

States including Ohio and Mississippi have gone further, filing lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies, alleging they misrepresented the addictive risks of their painkillers.

Continue Reading Below

Representatives for Allergan, Teva, Janssen, Purdue, AmerisourceBergen, McKesson, and Cardinal Health said that they were cooperating with the investigation.

A spokesman for Endo declined to comment. A spokesman for Allergan said the company's two opioid products account for less than 0.08% of all those prescribed in the U.S. in 2016.

Healthcare Distribution Alliance, a national trade group, said distributors welcome a discussion of the opioid epidemic but aren't responsible for an increase in painkiller prescriptions.

"While distributors play a vital role as logistics companies, to suggest that they are responsible for the volume of opioids prescribed lacks a fundamental understanding of how the supply chain works and is regulated, " the group said.

Mr. Schneiderman said the attorneys general have asked the companies for marketing materials, internal research about opioid efficacy, internal memos on opioid addiction and documents detailing how painkillers are controlled.

The attorneys general want to determine whether manufacturers misled doctors and patients about the addictive power of the drugs or used incentives to encourage employees to sell more drugs, Mr. Schneiderman said. They also hope to investigate whether distributors may have neglected their legal obligation to alert the Drug Enforcement Administration of suspicious orders, according to Mr. Schneiderman.

Mr. Schneiderman said that while the effort is focused on fact-finding, it may result in litigation if misconduct is found. "We hope that this will lead to some reforms by the industry itself," he said.

In several New York counties, drug overdoses account for more than 20% of deaths of people between the ages 15 and 44, including 41% in Sullivan County, Mr. Schneiderman said.

Nora Milligan, a critical-care nurse who said she is in long-term recovery from substance abuse, applauded Tuesday's announcement. She said she witnessed a shift in culture in hospitals, from opioids being prescribed with care and concern to being handed out with little fear of addiction.

"Families are being misled to think that these medications are harmless and it's OK to just leave them in your house," Ms. Milligan said.

Tuesday's announcement follows the news that 37 attorneys general -- including Mr. Schneiderman -- on Monday called upon insurance companies to examine policies that they say may have led to the overprescription of opioids.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 19, 2017 18:20 ET (22:20 GMT)