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Jackson County Joins Ever-Mounting Litigation Over Opioid Epidemic

Jackson County has become the latest government body to sue drug companies and distributors for their alleged complicity in the opioid epidemic.

The suit, filed on Wednesday in federal court in Kansas City, names dozens of businesses, including drug giants like Johnson & Johnson and pharmacies like CVS. It says at least 308 people in Jackson County died of opioid overdoses between 2013 and 2017.

The suit is one of hundreds filed by cities, counties and states against opioid makers and distributors. Most of the cases have been consolidated in Cleveland, where a federal judge has convened settlement talks.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says more than 115 people in the United States die every day from opioid overdoses. The lawsuits allege opioid companies helped cause the epidemic by falsely touting their products as safe and effective. 

“Opioid deaths in Jackson County are growing at an alarming rate,” Jackson County Executive Frank White Jr. said in a statement. “It is time to aggressively confront the pharmaceutical companies, who put profit over public health and safety, and hold them accountable.”

Opioid prescriptions in Jackson County were dispensed at the rate of 628 per 1,000 people in the second quarter of 2017, according to the lawsuit. The figures come from a prescription monitoring program enacted by the Jackson County Legislature in 2016 after the state refused to set up a statewide database. Missouri remains the only state in the nation without a prescription monitoring program.

The misuse and abuse of opioids have strained the Jackson County’s budget, affecting everything from emergency services and treatment programs to law enforcement and the courts, according to the lawsuit.

“We allocate significant resources in treatment programs, housing, education and employment services to help stop this vicious cycle,” White said. “But the only way to fully address this crisis requires those responsible to pay for the nuisance and harms fueled by their reckless actions.”

The opioid lawsuits take a page from the tobacco litigation initiated by 46 states and other government bodies seeking to recover costs they incurred in treating sick and dying cigarette smokers. The litigation culminated in a 1998 settlement, the largest in civil litigation history, under which the companies have paid out billions of dollars annually to the plaintiffs.

Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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