SALT LAKE CITY — Beaver County Commissioner Mark Whitney says he's proof that big men cry as he watched his son deal with the life-shattering effects of an addiction to painkillers.
"I have lived it. My family has lived it. I don't want to see other families go through this anymore," said Whitney, a big man who wears a cowboy hat.
Someone handed his son a pill after he lost his job and fell on hard times in his early 20s. He spent about five years hooked on opioids. Dedicated family support, especially from his mother, helped him overcome the addiction. Now 32, he's a married father of three with a good job.
"But he's one of the few," Whitney said.
Whitney joined Attorney General Sean Reyes and other state, local and federal leaders announcing a lawsuit Thursday against Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin and other opioids.
Whitney, a member of the Utah Opioid Task Force, thanked Reyes for "taking this calling on bringing these opioid companies, pharmaceutical companies to their knees, and we're gonna do so."
The 53-page lawsuit filed in Carbon County — which has the highest fatal opioid overdose rate in the state — alleges Purdue violated state consumer protection laws, misrepresented the risk of addiction and falsely claimed doctors and patients could increase dosages without risk. The complaint seeks millions of dollars in damages and a court order stemming the flow of opioids into the state.
For too long, manufacturers have become rich selling harmful prescription drugs, lying about the addictive nature of their products and killing thousands, Reyes said.
"It's time to make Purdue take responsibility," he said.
Purdue Pharma issued a statement denying the allegations.
“We are disappointed that after months of good faith negotiations working toward a meaningful resolution to help the state of Utah address the opioid crisis, the attorney general has unilaterally decided to pursue a costly and protracted litigation process," the statement reads.
Four counties in Utah — Salt Lake, Summit, Tooele and Weber — have already sued Big Pharma over the proliferation of prescription painkillers.
Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, is among a number of state legislators who are frustrated that Reyes had not sued earlier. He applauded the attorney general's actions Thursday.
"This effort has to find accountability. We cannot let people off the hook if they've done things illegal," Hughes said. "We don't need a settlement that hides and seals documents."
Utah is and will continue to be part of a 41-state effort the past 18 months to negotiate a settlement with pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors.
But Reyes said talks with Purdue were no longer productive. He said the company is not cooperating in a satisfactory way or providing critical information.
Opioid addiction hits rural Utah particularly hard.
The statewide overdose death rate is 16 per 100,000 residents. In counties like Carbon, Emery and Beaver — the worst in the state — the death rate is as high as 50 or 60 deaths per 100,000, according to Jennifer Plumb, an emergency room doctor and medical director of Utah Naloxone. The national average is 13 deaths per 100,000.
The crisis has drained state resources for the criminal justice, education, social services and health care systems, according to the lawsuit. Opioid abuse costs Utah and its residents $238 million in health care costs annually.24 comments on this story
Carbon County Sheriff Jeff Wood said his county is an ideal setting for the lawsuit. As a 26-year law enforcement veteran, he said he has seen the effects of addiction unfold over and over again.
County residents "work hard, they play hard and sometimes they get hurt, and if a person gets hurt and has to go to work the next day, they have to rely on something to get them there. And that's how all too often this starts," he said.
Rep. Mia Love, R-Utah, said the Utah delegation is pushing for more substance abuse and treatment program funding.
"This is not something that one entity fixes or that one person is able to fix," she said. "This is all hands on deck."