Lewiston is the latest municipality to join a national lawsuit against opioid manufacturers.
Coming just one day after the City Council in Portland voted unanimously to join, Lewiston voted 4-3 to add its name to the lawsuit, meaning the city would be a partial recipient of any financial settlements.
The lawsuit is aimed at holding the manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioids accountable for the unprecedented rise in opioid abuse and overdose deaths.
Prescription opioid manufacturers have been blamed for misrepresenting the safety and addictiveness of the drugs. As doctors across the country began prescribing the pain drugs more regularly, abuse and overdoses began to rise.
According to the Lewiston City Council memo, a four-fold increase in prescriptions between 1999 and 2013 was paralleled by a more than four-fold increase in opioid deaths.
When it becomes more difficult to obtain prescription opioids, many people suffering with substance use disorder turn to heroin. In Lewiston, there were 23 opioid-related deaths in 2016, and 15 the prior year. Maine saw 376 overdose deaths in 2016.
The order passed Tuesday allows City Administrator Ed Barrett to contract the services of Napoli Shkolnik PLLC, of New York, and Trafton, Matzen, Belleau & Frenette LLP, of Auburn. The firms will represent Lewiston “with respect to prosecution of any legal claims against manufacturers and distributors of opioids arising out of their fraudulent and negligent marketing and distribution of opioids.”
Barrett said joining the lawsuit will not cost the city any funds.
Councilors Tim Lajoie, Shane Bouchard and Mike Lachance voted against the measure.
Lachance said the lawsuit would only increase the price of drugs for those who badly need them, making the issue worse.
“This is a moneygrab,” he said.
Lajoie agreed. He said the fact that the law firms on the suit were taking 25 percent of any settlements was proof that it was to “line the pockets of lawyers.”
On Monday, a group of community members, led by mayoral candidate Ben Chin, laid 38 roses on the steps of City Hall to recognize the lives lost in the past two years. Chin also laid out his plan for combating the issue locally if elected.
“It’s affecting pretty much everyone in the community,” said Councilor Jim Lysen, who was also involved in Monday’s event.
“The actions of companies who market and distribute opioid drugs have contributed significantly to these issues through activities including: knowingly claiming that prescription opioids are less addictive and less subject to abuse than other opioid forms; failing to report suspicious orders of drugs; misleading marketing practices; negligence; and generally creating a false perception of the safety and efficacy of opioids in the medical community, much as the actions of tobacco companies contributed to health issues arising from tobacco use,” the council memo states.
It goes on to say that the lawsuit is intended to “recover the city’s costs relating to the opioid crisis and to change the practices of those engaged in opioid marketing and distribution,” and that any financial damages awarded to Lewiston through the proceedings “should be used to support law enforcement, education, and treatment efforts aimed at combating this epidemic.”
The only public comment came from Robert Reed, who said that city should not be punishing local doctors, hospitals and pharmacies or dictating how they can operate.
“I’m amazed that it got this far,” he said. “This is wrong.”
Shannon Violette of Lewiston places flowers on the steps of City Hall Monday morning to recognize the 38 opioid-related deaths in Lewiston over the past two years. On Tuesday, the City Council voted to join a nationwide lawsuit against the manufacturers of prescription opioid painkillers.