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By Taylor Knopf

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein announced Tuesday that his office is expanding its investigations into opioid manufacturers to include five pharmaceutical companies and three drug distributors.

Stein and 40 other attorneys general across the United States want to find out if the companies who have been profiting from the growing national opioid crisis broke the law while promoting their products.

“I cannot underscore the importance of this investigation enough,” Stein said during a press conference Tuesday at his office in Raleigh. “If these companies broke the law in any way, if they created the misery that the people of North Carolina are suffering, I will hold them accountable.”

Image courtesy frankieleon, flickr creative commons

Prescription drug overdose deaths in America quadrupled since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 183,000 people died in the U.S. from opioid overdoses between 1999 and 2015. And in 2014, the CDC estimated that about 2 million Americans abused prescription opioids.

Earlier this year, Stein’s office began investigating one of the largest drug manufacturers, Purdue Pharma.

The company is solely owned by the Sackler family, which made a fortune off OxyContin sales. In 2015, the Sacklers joined Forbes list of 25 richest families in America with a reported net worth of $13 billion, falling right behind the Hunt family (oil tycoons) and the Buschs of Anheuser-Busch beer fame.

On Tuesday, Stein expanded the investigation to include drug manufacturers Endo, Janssen, Teva/Cephalon and Allergan.

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Stein said he wants to know if these opioid manufacturers made deceptive statements while marketing prescription painkillers.

“We will investigate whether they overstated the scientific backing of their claims and whether they misled doctors and patients about the addictive nature of these drugs and the appropriateness of opioids for treating pain,” he said.

The investigation will also include three opioid distribution companies, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson.

“Drug distributors are the middle men who transport the drugs from the manufacturers to the pharmacists,” Stein said. “The law requires that these companies monitor and report suspicious shipments. We will determine whether or not they have followed this law. If they didn’t, we will find out how their actions have harmed the people of North Carolina.”

Stein said that it’s too early to say what the appropriate remedy would be if any of these companies are found guilty. In the past, North Carolina has received paybacks when similar cases were settled with other drug companies, including a $21.4 million August settlement against Epipen drugmaker Mylan over improper marketing and false statements. In 2012, the state received a $31 million payout from GlaxoSmithKline over false marketing of Paxil, Advair and other drugs.

“We first need to do the hard work of the investigation and that will take time and effort,” he said. “If we establish culpability and that they acted unlawfully, then we will hold them accountable. We will demand changes in the way they do business, and we will ensure that they help compensate for the harm that they’ve created.”

Notices of the investigation were sent to the drug companies on Monday.

Taylor Knopf

Taylor Knopf covers rural and mental health news. She previously wrote for The News & Observer as a politics and general assignment reporter. Before that, she worked at a small daily newspaper in southern...