Class action lawsuit filed over opioid abuse

Five Alaska tribes seek jury trial, compensation for damage caused by drug misuse, abuse

Five Alaska Native tribes are suing major pharmaceutical and retail firms, including Kroger, Walgreen and Walmart, in a class action lawsuit alleging the role of the defendants in the misuse, abuse and over-prescription of opioids.

The 274-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage seeks a jury trial on the allegations that defendant marketers and distributors of these opioids used a deceptive marketing strategy to promote and profit from sale of opioids, while misrepresenting the potential harm from their use.

The Kenaitze Indian Tribe, Asa’carsarmiut Tribe (of Mountain Village), Akiak Native Community, Native Village of Port Heiden and the Native Village of Afognak are represented by Anchorage attorney Lloyd Miller of Sonosky Chambers, Sachse Miller and Monkman, and other law offices in Washington D.C., San Francisco, Nashville, TN, Seattle and New York.

The lawsuit cites the words of the Indian Health Service’s chief medical officer saying that “American Indians and Alaska Natives had the highest drug overdose death rates in 2015 and the largest percentage increase in the number of deaths over time from 1999-2015 compared to other racial and ethnic groups.” Over this time period, the drug-related death rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives increased more than 500 percent, the lawsuit said. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the impact of opioids on American Indian and Alaska Native children has been particularly devastating. “The fact that American Indian teens are easily able to obtain OxyContin at these alarming rates indicates the degree to which drug diversion has created an illegal secondary market for opioids, plaintiffs said.

The plaintiffs contend that the case arose from abuse and over-prescription of opioids, due to deliberate deceptive marketing strategies by opioid manufacturers to expand opioid use and deliberate efforts to evade restrictions on opioid distribution. “Manufacturers and distributors alike acted without regard for the lives that would be trammeled in pursuit of profit,” plaintiffs allege in the lawsuit.

The opioids in question include brand name prescription medications such as OxyContin, Opana ER, Vicodin, Subsys and Duragesic, as well as generics like oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentanyl.  The lawsuit cites the American Society of Addiction Medicine, which that says 80 percent of people who initiated heroin use in the past decade started with prescription opioids, which, at the molecular level and in their effect, closely resemble heroin, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has identified addiction to prescription opioids as the strongest risk factor for heroin addiction.

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Margaret Bauman is a veteran Alaska journalist focused on covering fisheries and environmental issues. Bauman has been writing for The Cordova Times since 2010. You can reach her at mbauman@thecordovatimes.com.