Colorado’s Coffman joins other attorneys general in fight opioid drugmakers’ tactics

Author: Joey Bunch - June 15, 2017 - Updated: June 15, 2017

Coffman opioid addition
A state report this year showed the fast-rising death count from drug abuse in Colorado. (Courtesy of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment)

Colorado’s Cynthia Coffman is joining a bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general to investigate whether drug manufacturers’ marketing contribute to the opioid addiction crises in their states. Coffman talked of swords and shields.

“Every day our country and state lose loved ones to the opioid epidemic,” Coffman said in a statement Thursday morning. “My office understands that the fight against opioid addiction requires many partners. We will use the law as a sword and a shield to best serve those we represent — as a sword to hold accountable those who promote or sell opioids in violation of state law, and as a shield to protect the vulnerable struggling with addiction.”

The list of attorneys general asking for the investigation was not immediately available.

The strategy is similar to the one employed against tobacco companies by attorneys general, led by Mississippi, in the 1990s. Those cases led to huge payouts to states to encourage people not to smoke and recoup tax dollars spent on public health, as a result.

Last month, Ohio filed a lawsuit against five drug companies, similar to one filed earlier this year by Mississippi, alleging the companies downplay the risks while extending their brands.

In March, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said she was conducting a probe of drugmakers, citing 91 Americans who die each day from heroin, prescription drugs and other opioids.

Drug companies did not have an immediate response Thursday, but in March Jessica Castles Smith, a spokeswoman for Johnson & Johnson, said, “We believe that we have acted appropriately, responsibly and in the best interests of patients regarding our opioid pain medications.”

Bloomberg News reported Thursday that more than 20 states, counties and cities have sued drugmakers over the opioid crisis in the last year. None of them are in Colorado. Among the defendants are Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma and McKesson Corp.

Coffman’s office said that between 2002 and 2014 Colorado experienced a 68 percent rise in drug overdose deaths, and nationally fatalities have increased four-fold since 1999, killing 33,091 people in 2015 alone, a number higher than the combined populations of Grand and Pitkin counties.

Coffman chairs the Colorado Substance Abuse Trend and Response Task Force, and which issued a report in April, in partnership with the state health department and the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, on the heroin crisis in Colorado. Heroin deaths alone rose from 79 in 2011 in Colorado to 160 in 2015.

Last September Coffman announced the Colorado Naloxone for Life Initiative to extend the use of the opioid overdose antidote Naloxone by law enforcement and other first-responders. To date the program has reported more than 170 overdose treatments.

Colorado Politics has kept readers abreast of efforts in the legislature to fight the rise of opioid addiction and deaths.

Rangely Police Chief Vince Wilczek has been a notable holdout, telling council members the drug might encourage rather than discourage use and opens his department up to liability.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.