SALT LAKE CITY — Sanpete is Utah's latest county to sue drugmakers and distributors over the toll of painkiller addiction.
"You will not find a single person in Sanpete County who has not been affected by the opiate crisis," said Kevin Daniels, county attorney. Many of those who develop addictions turn to heroin and eventually experiment with methamphetamine, he said.
"We end up with more property crime, overdose deaths themselves, and then all the tertiary consequences of the opiate crisis, such as families being broken apart, deaths and just overall sadness and despair."
The largely rural county of about 30,000 alleges that more than a dozen pharmaceutical companies misled its own residents and others across the country. They created a "publicity machine" that falsely convinced people their drugs were safe and posed little risk of addiction, according to the suit filed in Manti's 6th District Court.
The county joins the state of Utah, in addition to Davis, Salt Lake, Summit, Tooele and Weber counties in suing the companies.
Among other costs to be determined at trial, Sanpete seeks compensation for providing care, treatment and other services for addiction; law enforcement and public safety costs; and for outreach and social programs. No dollar amounts associated with the costs were listed in court documents because economists are still doing the math, Daniels said.
The county indicated in court documents it is seeking to recover more than $300,000.
"It will be a significant amount," Daniels said.
The drug companies also violated Utah law protecting consumers by making false claims about the risks and benefits, the county argues.
The effect in Sanpete County was profound, its attorneys say.
In 2016, Sanpete physicians wrote 95.7 opioid prescriptions for every 100 citizens — the fifth-highest rate in Utah, according to the suit. And opiates have been involved in at least 60 of the 76 reported drug-related deaths since 1999, the county alleges, citing numbers from the national Centers for Disease Control.
The totals are smaller in a one-year snapshot. Sanpete logged two opioid-related overdose deaths in 2016, down from a high of eight in 2010.5 comments on this story
Meanwhile, the drugmakers have reaped "blockbuster profits," taking in $11 billion in 2014, according to the suit. It targets Purdue Pharma, which produces the brand-name OxyContin, plus Janssen, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Anesta, and several other manufacturers and distributors.
Daniels said he and county commissioners decided to file the lawsuit in Manti, rather than federal court, under the thinking the payoff would be bigger and faster there, and that a jury made up of locals should weigh the case if it goes to a trial.
Contributing: Sam Penrod