McClatchy's America

Miami may sue big pharma over opioid epidemic

cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

Miami, a city grappling with a toxic drug addiction, may add another lawsuit to big pharma’s growing legal woes.

City commissioners on Thursday are poised to hire a private law firm to pursue a complaint against prescription opioid manufacturers and distributors that would seek compensation for the resources Miami has been forced to dedicate to reviving overdose victims, policing drug-related crimes and healthcare.

The litigation, proposed by Commissioner Francis Suarez, would hinge on allegations that pharmaceutical companies “have manufactured, promoted, and marketed opioid medications by omitting critical information about the drugs’ addictive qualities and other risks associated with prolonged use.”

“It’s become a country-wide epidemic and I think that the drug manufacturers and the distributors are responsible,” Suarez said in an interview. “They know the highly addictive needs for the opioids and the destructive affect they have on society and yet they push and promulgate these drugs that are destroying families and cities.”

Heroin and prescription painkillers have caused dozens of deaths and hundreds of overdoses in South Florida in recent years. Overtown, a historically black neighborhood near downtown, has been the epicenter of the crisis.

Through all of 2016 and the first six months of this year, 177 people died in the city from opioid overdoses, according to records compiled by the police department. That list does not include non-fatal overdoses. Nor does it include the June death of Alton Banks, a 10-year-old boy who died of a suspected fentanyl overdose.

Last September, Miami’s fire chief said that paramedics had administered an antidote used to combat overdoses of fentanyl, a prescription painkiller, to 1,023 people during the first eight months of 2016, up from 493 doses the previous year. The city’s costs for the medicine alone increased from $43,000 to more than $155,000 during the first nine months of 2016.

Miami Fire Rescue was not able to provide updated figures Tuesday.

Dozens of states, cities and counties, including Delray Beach, have sued companies like Johnson & Johnson, and Purdue Pharma over allegations that they share some blame in the addiction crisis gripping the country. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has declared an opioid epidemic in his state, called Tuesday for new regulations and $50 million in new funding from the state to address the problem.

The proposal before commissioners Thursday would allow their city attorney to contract with an outside law firm on a contingency fee basis.

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