Camden County filed a pioneering lawsuit against several drug manufacturers and distributors Wednesday, seeking to recover millions of dollars the local government has spent combating the opioid crisis over the last decade.

The suit is the first of its kind to attack pharmaceutical companies for their role in the deadly epidemic under state racketeering laws typically used to fight bribery, extortion, and other fraudulent practices, officials said.

The 181-page complaint, filed in Camden County Superior Court, contends that drugmakers methodically targeted doctors, the public, and regulatory agencies with false marketing campaigns aimed at convincing Americans that opioids are not addictive. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 75 percent of patients in heroin treatment first became addicted to prescribed opioids. Officials say this "epic scheme" spurred the crisis that Camden County now faces.

Named in the suit are more than a dozen drug manufacturers, distributors, and retailers. In what officials described as an unprecedented move, three members of the Sackler family, which owns OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma, are also listed as defendants.

"The Sackler family … in our minds, are no different than members of a drug cartel that distribute drugs illegally or the drug pushers on our streets," said Camden County Freeholder Louis Cappelli, Jr. as he stood among victims of the epidemic and members of the county's Addiction Awareness Task Force outside of Camden's Hall of Justice.

A representative for the family was not immediately available for comment.

The suit aims to stop the distribution of addictive opioids and seeks funding for treatment and awareness programs in Camden County. It does not specify the monetary amount sought for damages.

Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli, announces that Camden County is suing manufacturers and distributors of opioids, saying they share responsibility for the epidemic gripping the nation.
Jessica Griffin
Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli, announces that Camden County is suing manufacturers and distributors of opioids, saying they share responsibility for the epidemic gripping the nation.

Over the last decade, officials say, the county has spent tens of millions of dollars fighting the epidemic in all sectors of the government, including law enforcement, emergency services, courts, and prisons.  In 2017, Camden County saw 277 overdoses and nearly 3,000 Narcan deployments.

"We are far short of the funds we need to meet our objective," Cappelli said. "It's time somebody pays. Those who created this problem should help pay for the solution for this problem."

Dozens of state and local governments, which bear the brunt of the sweeping epidemic, have joined a legal movement to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for the tens of thousands of opioid-related deaths each year. In January, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a lawsuit against corporate giants in the pharmaceutical industry.

In a statement, Purdue Pharma denied the allegations in Camden County's lawsuit and said it was dedicated to ensuring that patients have "access to FDA-approved medicines" while working to solve the opioid epidemic. The company said it has developed three of the first four FDA-approved opioid medications with abuse-deterrent properties and it helps police obtain Naloxone, a medication designed to reverse opioid overdose.

"We are deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis, and are dedicated to being part of the solution," the statement said. "We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense."

Drug distributors AmerisourceBergan, Cardinal Health and McKesson said Thursday that the lawsuit's aims were misguided.

"The idea that distributors are responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works and is regulated," the companies said in a statement released by Healthcare Distribution Alliance, a national organization that represents the three companies. "Those bringing lawsuits would be better served addressing the root causes, rather than trying to redirect blame through litigation."

For Patty DiRenzo, Camden's lawsuit is a personal victory.

Her son Salvatore Marchese died of an overdose after developing a drug addiction as a teenager. Marchese received treatment and was sober for two years when a doctor prescribed OxyContin for a toothache, she said, and he fell back into old habits. He was found dead in a car in Camden in 2010.

"We're losing this battle. [Drugmakers] need to be held accountable. They have billions of dollars and they need to use their money to save lives," said DiRenzo, 58, who serves on the county's addiction awareness task force.

Justin Wroblewski, a former student athlete from Blackwood, is still in recovery after developing an addiction to opioids. The 24-year-old was a basketball and baseball star in high school with dreams of playing college sports, but his plans changed sophomore year when he was prescribed painkillers for a sports injury.

"I wanted to get back on the field and do what I love to do," he said. "It wasn't long before the prescription ran out and the withdrawal symptoms started to set in."

Wroblewski said he has been sober for five years and hopes to see the sale of addictive pain medications curbed.

Earlier this month, Purdue Pharma announced the company would stop marketing OxyContin to doctors after years of mounting criticism. The company also launched a medical affairs department composed of health professionals to field questions from prescribers.