Suffolk County legislator Rob Calarco on May 20, 2013.

Suffolk County legislator Rob Calarco on May 20, 2013. Credit: James Escher

The Suffolk County Legislature voted unanimously Tuesday to hire outside counsel to sue prescription painkiller manufacturers to recoup county costs for health care and police services stemming from abuse of the drugs.

Legis. Rob Calarco (D-Patchogue), sponsor of the bill, said the companies have "misrepresented" to doctors that opioid drugs are safe to treat chronic pain and are nonaddictive. Calarco said abuse of the products boosts county costs for employee health care and police.

"We're in the middle of battling a heroin epidemic which is rooted in prescription painkillers," Calarco said Tuesday.

Bob Josephson, spokesman for Purdue Pharma LP, the Stamford, Connecticut-based maker of the painkiller OxyContin, said the company has trained 400 law enforcement officers from Suffolk in drug issues since 2010.

"We have a lengthy record of collaborating with policymakers, law enforcement and public health experts to address opioid overuse and abuse, so it's unfortunate that a more collaborative path wasn't chosen," Josephson said in a statement.

Legis. William Spencer (D-Centerport), a physician who is president of the Suffolk Medical Society, said manufacturers have pressed doctors to recommend the drugs to patients. "We were literally told that these (drugs) were less addictive," he said.

However, Spencer said physicians and patients should become better informed about the effects of the drugs.

Two California counties and the City of Chicago have filed lawsuits against five drug manufacturers, including Purdue. The suits allege that the companies fraudulently marketed painkillers. Chicago's suit estimated that the city had paid $9.5 million in insurance claims stemming from employees' use of painkillers since 2008.

In August, a judge stayed the California counties' lawsuit while the U.S. Food and Drug Administration conducts a review of painkillers' safety and efficacy.

A judge dismissed Chicago's case against four of the five manufacturers in May, saying the city hadn't proved a link between the products and employee health problems. The city's suit against Purdue remains active.

Under the legislation, Suffolk will retain the Manhattan law firm of Simmons Hanly Conroy LLC on a contingency basis to sue opioid manufacturers.

Simmons Hanly Conroy LLC is a national mesothelioma law firm. The contingency fee has not been determined, but is typically no more than a third of the settlement amount, Calarco said.

Lawmakers also voted unanimously to ban the sale of products containing microbeads. The small plastic beads are used as exfoliants in products including soap and cosmetics.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the nonprofit Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said sewage plants aren't equipped to filter out the beads, which she said "act like toxic sponges" for pesticides and chemicals that are eaten by fish. Many manufacturers are switching to natural alternatives such as apricot pits and walnut shells, Esposito said.

Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) said Suffolk would become the third and largest New York county to ban products with microbeads.

The legislation will go into effect in January 2018.

Violators would be subject to a $500 fine for the first offense, $750 for the second and up to $1,000 for subsequent violations.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is expected to sign the microbead and painkiller legislation.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the types of painkillers whose manufacturers could be sued.

Latest videos