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SLO County joins opioid suit

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SLO County will join hundreds of counties, cities, and states across the country in a massive federal lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies and drug wholesalers over their alleged role in fueling the nation's opioid epidemic.

During an Aug. 21 closed session meeting, the SLO County Board of Supervisors voted 4-0, with 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold abstaining, to participate in multidistrict litigation in federal court against multiple opioid drug manufacturers and distributors. The lawsuit accuses those companies, which include OxyContin manufacturer Perdue Pharma, of deceptively marketing powerful opioid painkillers as being non-addictive and misrepresenting the risks of long-term use.

"Such practices have led to increased addiction and deaths and an increased cost to the county for drug treatment, medical services, and law enforcement," SLO County Counsel Rita Neal said.

In 2016 opioids, including prescription drugs and heroin, killed more than 42,000 people in the United States. Of those deaths, 40 percent involved a prescription opioid medication, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to data from the SLO County Opioid Safety Coalition, SLO County recorded 270 opioid-related deaths between 2006 and 2017.

The multi-district litigation was set in motion after more than 1,000 separate lawsuits filed against drug makers, marketers, and distributors were consolidated into a single case in the federal court's Northern Ohio District. Judge Dan Aaron Polster was selected to preside over what is expected to be a lengthy and complex case. SLO will join 29 other California counties that have either already joined the case or are preparing to, Neal said.

The opioid lawsuits have been compared to the mass litigation states pursued against tobacco companies in the mid-1990s, which eventually led to a settlement totaling more than $206 billion over 25 years. Neal said the next step would be to filing a complaint on behalf of SLO County with the court. She did not give an exact date on when that would happen but added that county would "get moving on it as soon as possible." Once it is filed, the complaint will be available as a public record.

Arnold was the lone supervisor to not vote for joining the litigation. Speaking with New Times, Arnold said she abstained from voting because she didn't believe the board was given enough information before being asked to vote. She was also concerned that the litigation could lead have unexpected impacts such as higher drug prices.

"Opioid addiction is rampaging across the country, and of course that's bad," she said. "But what are the unintended consequences?" Δ

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