Lawyers for the city of Chicago are investigating marketing claims by producers of narcotic painkillers as a prelude to a possible lawsuit against them, according to interviews and a court filing.
The investigation is focusing on whether manufacturers of the drugs, which are known as opioids, overstated their benefits and understated their risks, such as the chances that a patient could become addicted to the drugs, a court filing shows.
Should the inquiry determine that the companies made false claims, the city would then seek to recover millions of dollars in health care dollars spent on pain drugs used to treat city employees and retirees, the court filing shows.
The investigation, which began this summer, appears to be in an early phase. The city hired an outside class-action law firm, Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, to handle the case. It would receive a share in any money recovered through a successful lawsuit, the filing shows.
In a statement, a spokesman for the city’s Law Department, Roderick Drew, confirmed the inquiry.
“As part of its ongoing efforts to protect Chicago taxpayers, the city conducts reviews concerning allegations of misconduct on the part of city suppliers,” Mr. Drew said in a statement. “This subpoena is part of those ongoing efforts.”
The inquiry is unfolding as scrutiny of both the safety and long-term effectiveness of opioids is growing. Prescription painkillers are now the most widely prescribed class of drugs in the United States and are involved in about 17,000 overdose deaths annually.
Any lawsuit against the drugmakers, however, could face serious challenges because the medications at issue were approved by the Food and Drug Administration as safe and effective. In addition, lawsuits brought by cities, including Chicago, against makers of firearms to recover costs related to gun-related violence failed.
The existence of the investigation is coming to light because of a little-noticed filing in a Cook County court in September by the city.
A copy of the filing, which was provided to The New York Times, shows that city officials asked a judge in September to enforce a subpoena previously issued to one manufacturer of prescription opioids, the Janssen Pharmaceuticals unit of Johnson & Johnson.
The company had refused to turn over requested marketing materials and other records, citing a variety of objections, such as the scope of the document request and the involvement of the class-action law firm in the action, the filing shows.
“Janssen’s refusal to comply with the subpoena impedes the city’s authorized law enforcement investigation into potential misconduct by Janssen,” the city stated in its request.
A spokeswoman for Janssen, Pamela Van Houten, said in a statement that the drug maker was responding to the subpoena. Among other drugs, the company manufactures Duragesic, a time-release form of the opioid fentanyl.
“We are in discussions with the city regarding the scope and the timing,” she said in the statement.
While the court filing is specific to Janssen, the scope of the city’s investigation is industrywide.
Among other things, the inquiry is seeking to determine whether companies deceptively promoted opioids as safe and
effective in the treatment of chronic pain, such as low back pain and arthritis, despite a lack of evidence to support those claims.
It is also examining whether opioid producers, which paid professional medical organizations and other groups to promote use of the drugs, understated the medications’ risk of addiction and other side effects.
A spokesman for Purdue Pharma, the producer of OxyContin, said that the company was not currently in possession of any subpoenas from Chicago officials. That spokesman, Raul Damas, declined to say whether the company had received one earlier.
A spokesman for another opioid producer, Endo Pharmaceuticals, said that company had received a subpoena from the city of Chicago and was cooperating with it.