The city of Portland could become the latest community to join a legal fight against manufacturers of prescription painkillers, which many believe have contributed to the ongoing opioid epidemic.

City councilors will discuss in executive session next month whether to bring a separate case or join an existing lawsuit against companies such as Purdue Pharma, which distributes OxyContin, for their role in a crisis that has contributed to a record number of overdose deaths across the country, including in Maine.

Mayor Ethan Strimling said Friday that he’d likely be supportive of any effort but wanted to hear from city legal staff and others about what might be appropriate.

Danielle West-Chuta, the city’s corporation counsel, declined to comment ahead of the Aug. 2 discussion.

Portland resident George Rheault spoke at length to councilors during a February meeting about other state and municipal efforts and then followed up with an email to councilors.

“Focusing public attention on the wrongful conduct of a giant and super profitable corporate pill pusher … helps the general public understand better how the current devastation our communities are enduring came about while an actual lawsuit takes the typical tortured path through our legal system,” Rheault wrote.

City staff had been discussing the matter and requested a council workshop. 

In 2016, there were 376 overdose deaths in Maine, a 38 percent increase over the previous year’s total of 272, which had already been the highest on record. Of the deaths last year, 317 involved an opioid – either a prescription painkiller or an illicit version like heroin or fentanyl.

Portland – Maine’s largest city – documented the highest number of opioid-related deaths, with 38. In addition, emergency officials are responding to more and more overdoses with Narcan, a drug that counters the effects of an opioid overdose. Since last September, city police have administered Narcan 55 times. Fire department staff members have used 104 doses of Narcan so far this year.

Even if Portland doesn’t end up filing suit or joining an existing case, pressure is increasingly being applied to major pharmaceutical companies. Last month, Maine Attorney General Janet Mills announced that she was working with a bipartisan group of attorneys general from across the country to investigate the practices of manufacturers of opioids.

Mills, now a Democratic candidate for governor in 2018, did not provide specifics about what that investigation might entail, other than that it would examine what role opioid manufacturers may have played in creating or prolonging the epidemic.

“We need to get the genie back in the pill bottle; our society is awash in pills and it is killing us,” she said in a statement. “The vast majority of people arrested for possession of heroin or fentanyl tell us their substance abuse disorder began with painkillers. We have to confront all sources of the opiate problem, no matter the origin. It is now common knowledge that certain drug companies sold the public and medical community a bill of goods by marketing products as being non-addictive when in fact hundreds of thousands of people developed severe dependency to these substances.”

In May, Ohio’s Republican attorney general, Mike De- Wine, filed a lawsuit against five companies that are the largest producers and distributors of opioid painkillers. Other investigations or civil lawsuits also have been announced in Arizona, Illinois, Massachusetts and Texas.

The city of Everett, Washington, also is suing Purdue Pharma in an unusual case that alleges the drugmaker knowingly allowed pills to be funneled into the black market and the city of about 108,000. Everett alleges that Purdue Pharma did nothing to stop it and must pay for damages it caused to the community.

A decade ago, Purdue Pharma and its executives paid more than $630 million in legal penalties to the federal government for willfully misrepresenting the drug’s addiction risks. The same year, it also settled with Washington and other states that claimed the company aggressively marketed OxyContin to doctors while downplaying the addiction risk. As part of that settlement, it agreed to continue internal controls to identify potential diversion or abuse.

The various lawsuits eventually could be consolidated, much like similar suits filed decades ago against the tobacco industry, and lead to settlements that could steer money to treatment programs or prevention efforts.

But there are legal differences between lawsuits against Big Tobacco and Big Pharma.

Richard Ausness, associate dean for faculty research at the University of Kentucky College of Law, discussed the flood of state and municipal lawsuits during an international broadcast last month on “America’s Opioid Nightmare,” which aired in an edition of “Business Daily” on the BBC World Service.

Ausness remained skeptical that the suits against pharmaceutical companies will ultimately prevail.

“There are a couple of problems,” he said. “The main one is that you have other actors involved, particularly the addicts themselves who are misusing the products, and so the drug companies will say it’s not our fault, it’s their fault. I don’t know if that will work or not.”

Strimling, however, said if any settlements are made down the road, having Portland sign on formally to any suit allows the city to stake a claim.

“A suit like this has two purposes really,” he said. “One is to stop companies from marketing these products and the other is to provide resources to deal with some of the problems they created.”

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

Clarification: This story was revised at 9:12 a.m., July 24, 2017, to clarify the remarks of Portland resident George Rheault to  city council on the ongoing opioid epidemic.

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