Two California counties — Orange and Santa Clara — joined forces and filed a lawsuit this week against five of the largest prescription narcotics manufacturers. The Los Angeles Times summarized the case this way:

(T)he lawsuit alleges the drug companies have reaped blockbuster profits by manipulating doctors into believing the benefits of narcotic painkillers outweighed the risks, despite “a wealth of scientific evidence to the contrary.” The effort “opened the floodgates” for such drugs and “the result has been catastrophic,” the lawsuit contends.

Thursday on KQED News, Tara Siler spoke with Robert Bohrer, a professor at the California Western School of Law in San Diego. The lawsuit does not challenge the FDA approval of these drugs. Instead the case alleges that the companies broke state laws against false advertising, unfair business practices and creating a public nuisance.

Bohrer drew parallels to the cases against tobacco companies in the 1990s. In those cases, he explained, there were federally-required warning labels on cigarette packages, and on other tobacco products.

“There were lawsuits brought over the marketing practices of tobacco companies that in some sense undermined what was on the label,” Bohrer said. One example is “light” cigarettes, which were marketed as less harmful because they continued laser levels of tar and nicotine.

But, Bohrer explained, “The tobacco companies knew that the behavior of cigarette smokers when they have a better filter is to inhale more and to smoke more often, so the claims were false and misleading that light cigarettes were more healthy.” The Supreme Court ruled that these state laws, laws the prohibit false and misleading advertising “could be used against tobacco companiees for the additional language that went beyond the federally required warning.”

Bohrer the tobacco example is “very close” to the allegations in the case against narcotics makers. “Yes, there’s a federal warning on here, but you’re engaging in additional activities that go beyond that and undermine it in a way that’s false and misleading.”

The five companies being sued are  Endo Health Solutions, Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries’ Cephalon, Johnson and Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals, and Actavis.

The lawsuit does not specify restitution.

Borher said the lawsuit raises fascinating and complicated questions, “about who’s really responsible here, the doctors, the pharmaceutical companies, and the fact that we have this enormous public health problem that is only in part prescritipion drugs and is part of a bigger picture of addiction and drug abuse in the U.S. today.”

Two California Counties Sue Narcotics Makers in Deceptive Marketing 23 May,2014Lisa Aliferis


Lisa Aliferis

Lisa Aliferis is the founding editor of KQED’s State of Health blog. Since 2011, she’s been writing and editing stories for the site. Before taking up blogging, she toiled for many years (more than we can count) producing health stories for television, including Dateline NBC and San Francisco’s CBS affiliate, KPIX-TV. She also wrote up a handy guide to the Affordable Care Act, especially for Californians. Her work has been honored for many awards. Most recently she was a finalist for “Best Topical Reporting” from the Online News Association. You can follow her on Twitter: @laliferis

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