Bensalem is first Philly-area town to sue drugmakers for fueling opioid epidemic

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Bensalem plans to sue pharmaceutical manufacturers in hopes of recouping tens of millions of dollars spent fighting and opioid epidemic that officials believe was fueled by greedy drug companies.

Township officials said they looked forward to becoming the first jurisdiction in the Philadelphia region to join a small but growing list of states, counties and towns across the country that are seeking to slow the epidemic by forcing drug companies to pay.

“My frustration time is past what we can do,” Mayor Joe DiGirolamo said in an interview before a scheduled news conference to announce the civil suit, adding that the township paid “incredible costs” fighting the epidemic.

“Do you know what it’s like when he calls me at 10 at night,” DiGirolamo said, referring to his director of public safety, “and says, ‘Mayor we had two overdoses today, one of them fatal.’”

Overdoses in the township have risen 556 percent in a decade, officials said.

The suit, like others filed by Chicago, two California counties, scattered municipalities, and, in May, by the state of Ohio, names four pharmaceutical manufacturers and related entities. By far, the best known is Purdue Pharma, which began marketing extended release OxyContin in the mid-1990s and whose executives have pleaded guilty to charges related to misleading physicians about the drug’s benefits and potential for addiction.

The other three manufacturers are located in the Philadelphia region: Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals, based in Titusville, N.J., which marketed Nucynta; Teva Pharmaceuticals, which owns Cephalon, the maker of the fentanyl “lollipop” Actiq; and Endo Pharmaceuticals, whose opioid Opana ER was recently pulled by the Food and Drug Administration.

The suits — and others targeting national distributors such as Philadelphia-based McKesson Corp. — are part of a growing movement to force pharmaceutical companies to change their practices and also reimburse localities for expenses such as police activity related to addiction, especially heroin.

Research shows that most new heroin users report having started on prescription painkillers, usually with a prescription from a physician.

“I believe that 75 to 80 percent of all of the crime that we prosecute here in Bucks County is driven or fueled by alcohol or drug use or addiction,” District Attorney Matt Weintraub said in an interview. They include DUI and possession cases as well as stealing, prostitution, and burglarizing, he said. ” While not involved with the township’s action, Weintraub said he supported it.

“It seems to me that while the drug companies seem to be interested in profit and loss, we’re battling life and death and the drug companies are at least in part responsible for enabling so many people to become addicted to these opiates, and therefore they should bear some responsibility for helping us get out of this scourge,” Weintraub said.

The Bensalem suit is expected to be filed in state court within several weeks.

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