Pike County Considering Legal Action Against Painkiller Maker

PIKEVILLE, Ky. (AP) - An eastern Kentucky county plagued by widespread use of OxyContin is seeking litigation against the manufacturer of the powerful painkiller.

The Pike County Fiscal Court has unanimously voted to authorize a local attorney to determine whether the county has a legal case against OxyContin's maker, Purdue Pharma, Judge-executive Wayne T. Rutherford said Wednesday.

County records show that since 2005, Pike officials have dumped more than $7 million in bonds and coal severance money into the fight against prescription drug abuse.

Rutherford said OxyContin, a powerful slow-release painkiller, is the main culprit.

"We have an epidemic in this county," he said, adding that prevalent abuse of the drug has given "us the reputation of being the OxyContin capital of America."

Rutherford said county officials decided to pursue a potential lawsuit after the drug maker and three of its current or former executives pleaded guilty last month to misleading the public about the drug's risk of addiction.

Purdue Pharma spokesman Jim Heins declined to comment on the fiscal court's action. He said that he was unaware of any other city or county government pursuing litigation against the Stamford, Conn.-based company.

OxyContin - the brand name for oxycodone - has been blamed for hundreds of deaths across the country in recent years, since the slow-release effect can be circumvented by crushing and snorting the pill. The drug has been called "hillbilly heroin" in drug-ridden Appalachian states like Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.

Sheriff Charles "Fuzzy" Keesee said prescription drug abuse is so rampant in Pike County - geographically the largest county in Kentucky - that his jail underwent a $5.6 million expansion in 2005 to deal with the problem.

In 2006, 484 people died from drug overdoses in Kentucky, according to the state medical examiner's annual report. Oxycodone was the chief cause in 16 percent of the deaths.

Thirteen out of the 46 drug-related deaths in Pike County were attributed to OxyContin - nearly twice the seven such deaths in 2005, according to the county coroner.

A quarter of the 168 overdose deaths examine by the state medical examiner's office in Frankfort, which covers eastern Kentucky fatalities, were attributed to oxycodone.

Unintentional fatal drug overdoses nearly doubled nationally from 1999 to 2004, the federal government reported this year. Researchers for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have blamed sedatives and prescription painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin as the chief cause of the increase.

Meanwhile, two Republican congressmen from Appalachia - U.S. Reps. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., and Frank Wolf, R-Va. - have called on the federal Food and Drug Administration to reclassify OxyContin so that only people in severe pain can be prescribed the drug. Currently, the drug also can be prescribed to those in moderate pain.

Rogers said in a recent interview that reclassifying OxyContin would drastically reduce the amount of OxyContin sold illegally in Appalachia.

Purdue Pharma's May 11 plea agreement requires the company, its president, top lawyer and former chief medical officer to pay $634.5 million in fines for claiming the drug was less addictive and less subject to abuse than other pain medications.

The plea agreement settled a national case and came two days after the company agreed to pay $19.5 million to 26 states and Washington, D.C., to settle complaints that it encouraged physicians to overprescribe the drug.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved


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