SALT LAKE CITY — Fed up with the tragedy and economic losses associated with the national opioid epidemic and its impact on Utahns, Salt Lake County leaders plan to join other counties and states across the nation that are suing opioid drug manufacturers.
"I expect to see damages for the harm that has been caused to our community," Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said at a news conference Monday. "But more importantly, we want to change the outrageous behavior that is harming families and harming the safety of our community."
It's not yet clear how much in damages Salt Lake County officials will be seeking or which companies they will be suing, but District Attorney Sim Gill said his legal team will be working through the specifics over the next two weeks while the suit is prepared for filing.
The announcement comes amid Operation Rio Grande, the $67 million city, county and state effort to root out lawlessness in Salt Lake City's most troubled neighborhood, which up until the operation's Aug. 14 launch was known for its criminal activity and open-air drug market.
"We are heartbroken and outraged by the stories of families of our residents and the death and destruction they see in their lives," McAdams said. "We cannot afford to stand by any longer."
McAdams said the opioid epidemic is playing out in "horrifying ways" in Salt Lake County and areas like Rio Grande, surrounding Salt Lake City's downtown homeless shelter. He said before Operation Rio Grande, open drug use in the neighborhood was "chaotic" and "frightening."
McAdams said 90 percent of people who were arrested in Operation Rio Grande and assessed for drug court in jail were heroin users.
Eighty percent of heroin users start with legal painkillers, according to the Utah Department of Health.
"Meanwhile as we've struggled to find ways to pay for these needs, the death toll is rising and families are seeing their loved ones struggle against an insidious illness," McAdams said. "Here in Salt Lake County, we are tired of seeing our treatment facilities overwhelmed by this crisis."
Two families with victims of opioid addiction attended Monday's announcement.
Dennis and Celeste Cecchini said they lost their son Tennyson to an overdose in 2015 when he was 33. They said Tennyson had been prescribed pain pills for a shoulder injury from playing hockey.
Dennis Cecchini said that prescription started his son's 10-year "death spiral" of addiction, which ended when "he died on our bathroom floor, with my wife and I watching the life leave his body."
"He had a son. He had a fiancee. And all of that was lost in the 10 years that he suffered from this disease," Dennis Checchini said.
Jan Lovett said her daughter Erin and stepdaughter Jennifer both struggled with addiction to pain pills — but they're "the lucky ones" because they survived.
"What I have to argue is it takes a lot less than 30 to 60 days to become addicted," Lovett said. "Try seven to 10 days."
Dennis Cecchini and Lovett thanked Salt Lake County leaders for stepping forward.
"I gotta tell you that the amount of money that is necessary to solve this issue is way beyond what any one state or any one county can put toward it," Cecchini said.
Numerous counties and states across the U.S. are pursuing legal action against opioid makers, including Georgia, Michigan and Texas. McAdams said Salt Lake County, too, will be stepping forward to "challenge the irresponsible actions of drug companies and drugmakers that trivialize the risk of opioids while overstating the benefits for using them for chronic pain."
"The medical, social and economic and criminal costs are estimated to be in excess of $500 billion," Gill said. "And Utah was not spared this national tragedy."
Between 1999 and 2007, deaths in Utah attributed to poisoning by prescription pain medication increased by nearly 600 percent, he said.
"We have a responsibility to advocate for the citizens of Salt Lake County, taxpayers and victims driven by the profiteering of Big Pharma," Gill said. "Drug dealers exploit the vulnerable and Big Pharma did the same, leaving local communities to pick up the pieces."
Gill said the national opioid epidemic has been driven by "drug companies who are simply motivated by increased profits and increased sales."
He said drug companies set out between 1990 and 2000 to "persuade providers and regulators and patients that opioids are safe and effective to treat chronic non-cancer pain because the acute pain market is limited and the chronic pain market is huge.
"Drug companies knew of the seriousness and adverse outcomes to the use of opioids and knew of the highly addictive nature of their products and knew that control studies showed the safety of opioids was limited to only short-term use," Gill said, but they marketed them anyway.
Gill said some of his "favorite" claims were that opioids are "rarely addictive if taken long term" and that there was "no maximum dosage for opioid use."
House Speaker Greg Hughes — who has called for the state of Utah to file a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies — also attended Monday's announcement. He said those claims from manufacturing companies don't "even pass the laugh test."
"These statements were fraudulent," the Draper Republican said. "These statements weren't true, and lives have been lost because of it."
Although Salt Lake County leaders haven’t yet named the company or companies they intend to sue, one company — Purdue Pharma — in response to a similar suit South Carolina filed in August in which the state accused the opioid drugmaker of using deceptive marketing, said in a statement: “We vigorously deny the allegations” but share “concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions,” according to the Associated Press.
A state suit?
When asked why Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes hasn't filed its own lawsuit on Utah's behalf, Hughes said: "You'll have to ask the attorney general's office," though he added that he's had conversations with Reyes and lawmakers.
Daniel Burton, a spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office, declined to confirm whether the office plans to file litigation, but he did say Reyes joined 40 other attorneys general from around the U.S. to investigate whether unlawful business practices contributed to the nation’s escalating opioid abuse.
He also said Utah's involvement in lawsuits against tobacco companies and Volkswagen, for example — which were multistate efforts — result in larger settlements than when counties file separate lawsuits.
"There's good reason not to go alone in something like this," Burton said, adding that multistate efforts can be "a little bit more deliberate and slow to get to the punchline."
"But also be aware," Burton added, "we don't in any way dismiss (Salt Lake County's) efforts. We are all working on this together; we're just going at it in different ways."
But Hughes said, "We have no time to investigate any longer" because lives are at stake.
"We have to get serious," the speaker said. "We have no time to circle this issue."
Hughes said he looks to "the leadership of Salt Lake County, but also other counties" to step forward. "We hope to see a much, much larger effort at the end of the day."