Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi announced Tuesday that the state has filed a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors, blaming the companies for creating the crisis which kills about 15 Floridians a day.
The lawsuit unveiled in Tampa alleges that five of the largest opioid manufacturers promoted the drugs and published misinformation, downplaying their addictive nature.
It claims distributors of the drugs failed to report suspicious orders and continued filing those orders even after law enforcement officials told them not to.
"It's time the defendants paid for the pain and destruction they have caused," said Bondi, surrounded by law enforcement, first responders, politicians and mothers who lost children to the opioid crisis.
Bondi expects damages to reach into the billions of dollars and has enlisted the help of private attorneys, some of whom helped the state win a large settlement from BP after the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Sadly, how do you impact Big Pharma? Money,” Bondi said. “I wish I could send some of them to jail but I can't. So we're going after them financially.”
Florida filed its lawsuit the same day that five other states sued pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, the maker of oxycontin, and accused the company of using deceptive marketing to boost drug sales that fueled opioid deaths. Sixteen additional states already have filed similar suits.
But Florida's lawsuit, filed in a state court in Pasco County, targets four other drug companies along with Purdue Pharma, as well as companies that distribute drugs.
The lawsuit accuses the companies of racketeering and violating the state's deceptive practices law. It also alleges that drug manufacturers used front groups and paid experts to tout the drugs as a use for chronic pain.
Bondi made the announcement at Riverside Recovery, a treatment center in Tampa's Seminole Heights. She invited Lisa Brandy, who lost her 18-year-old daughter to an opioid overdose, to speak.
“Don’t blame the addict anymore and don’t blame the parents,” Brandy said. “Blame big Pharma for lying and knowing that they created this.”
Officials who gathered with Bondi angrily denounced the drug manufacturers. Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said the companies were no different than a "drug cartel" and that they needed to have their assets frozen so that company officials can't go on their yachts.
“They’re drug dealers, there’s no doubt about it,” Nocco said. “They were pushing pills, getting people addicted, enticing doctors and pain management clinics to prescribe more people and that’s how the reps made more money.”
Purdue, based in Stamford, Connecticut, said it would "vigorously deny" the claims and defend itself.
"We are disappointed that after months of good faith negotiations working toward a meaningful resolution to help these states address the opioid crisis, this group of attorneys general have unilaterally decided to pursue a costly and protracted litigation process," company spokesman Bob Josephson said in an email about all the lawsuits.
Some of the other companies named in Florida's lawsuit said they follow state and federal law and that they are working with officials to combat opioid abuse. Wanda Moebius, a spokeswoman for Janssen Pharmaceuticals, said the company marketed and promoted its medicines appropriately.
"The labels for our prescription opioid pain medicines provide information about their risks and benefits, and the allegations made against our company are baseless and unsubstantiated," Moebius said in an email.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.