CAMDEN — As the opioid epidemic continues to worsen across the state, officials in Camden County are taking their fight against the epidemic to the courtroom, part of a growing trend across the country.

The Camden County Freeholder Board announced it is filing a "ground-breaking" lawsuit against the drug companies, owners, manufacturers, distributors and retailers that "ignited the epidemic."

While hundreds of cases have been filed against drug companies, the Camden County suit says it is different because it is going directly after the owners of the companies.

"The record profits achieved by Purdue Pharma, the Sackler family and those that worked in concert with them, were earned at the expense of the millions of individuals who became predictably addicted to the tsunami of opioids unleashed upon the marketplace," Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. said Wednesday.

"The meteoric rise in opioid prescriptions, and the attendant rise in addiction to and abuse of these drugs, is not due to a medical breakthrough, but rather the defendants' quest for greater profits at the expense of American lives."

Last October, a lawsuit was filed by then-Attorney General Christopher S. Porrino against Purdue Pharma L.P. for a "direct" link between the opioid crisis the state is facing and the company's efforts to boost profits by pushing the addictive medications.

"When we point the finger of blame for the deadly epidemic that has killed thousands in New Jersey, Purdue is in the bullseye of the target," Porrino said at the time. "In a campaign of almost inconceivable callousness and irresponsibility, we allege that Purdue has spent hundreds of millions of marketing dollars to downplay the addiction risk associated with taking opioids for chronic pain, all the while exaggerating the benefits of using these dangerous drugs."

The state's lawsuit says the company had sales representatives in the state visit up to eight doctors a day, five days a week, to push the drugs on the doctors. Those that prescribed the drugs the most were called "Super Core Prescribers" and given special perks from the company. The sales reps also received special benefits for reaching their "Rx quota," according to Porrino.

In addition to the state and county lawsuits, several municipalities have also filed similar suits against the pharmaceutical companies. The New Jersey Law Journal said last year that Irvington and Ridgefield joined Newark and Paterson as some of the towns to file suits. The Journal said the Irvington lawsuit claims that the companies caused "significant damages, including but not limited to increased health services costs, and costs related to responding to and dealing with opioid-related crimes and emergencies."

Janssen Pharmaceuticals spokesman William Foster told the Journal that "responsibly used opioid-based pain medicines give doctors and patients important choices to help manage the debilitating effects of chronic pain."

"At the same time, we recognize opioid abuse and addiction is a serious public health issue that must be addressed," he said, calling the allegations in the lawsuits "legally and factually unfounded."

Last month, New York City announced it would also be filing a lawsuit against the drug industry for its role in the opioid epidemic.

More than 200 lawsuits have been filed by municipalities in New Jersey, New York, California, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.

In response, Purdue Pharma spokesman John Puskar told the Associated Press that the company is "deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis." He also said Purdue "must balance patient access to FDA-approved medicines, while working collaboratively to solve this public health challenge."

A federal judge in Ohio who is overseeing close to 200 lawsuits against the opioid drug makers said "everyone shares some of the responsibility, and no one has done enough to abate it."

Polster said his objective in the case is to "do something meaningful to abate this crisis and do it in 2018." He said that can be done by reducing the number of drugs that are prescribed, manufactured and distributed.

"Just dramatically reduce the quantity and make sure that the pills that are manufactured and distributed go to the right people and no one else," Polster told the paper.

Last year, Bloomberg reported that Purdue Pharma had approached several states about a "global settlement" to settle the numerous cases it faces across the country. Two weeks later the company confirmed to Bloomberg that it was in "negotiations" with attorneys general from several states.

In addition to the pharmaceutical companies and the Sackler family, the Camden County lawsuit also names Walgreens, Costco and Rite Aid as defendants.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report

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