County attorneys in Minnesota announced lawsuits Thursday against drug manufacturers and distributors for the public cost of the opioid crisis sweeping the nation.

About a half-dozen county attorneys and other public officials from across the state formally announced the legal actions at a news conference in St. Paul, saying they wanted to show a united front against the companies, which they allege fraudulently downplayed the drugs' addictive qualities and negligently distributed unusually large quantities of the drugs.

The suits are part of a national wave of legal actions by local governments alleging manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioids are largely responsible for an epidemic of addiction that has caused thousands of deaths and strained public resources.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said some of the Minnesota lawsuits were filed this week, but more will follow in coming weeks and months.

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput called the crisis "a public nuisance" and said the suits are being filed because opioid manufacturers and distributors "need to help us clean it up."

The drugs can be helpful for short-term use such as post-surgery or end-of-life care, Orput and others acknowledged. But they allege that in trying to expand demand, companies marketed the drugs to doctors to use for long-term care and chronic pain "knowing that doing that is going to cause a significant number of addictions," Orput said.

The counties blame distributors for failing to detect and report large orders in certain areas, leading to drugs being used for nonmedical purposes.

Drug manufacturers who responded to Star Tribune inquiries on Thursday said they were committed to working toward a solution to opioid abuse. They also defended their practices with prescription drugs, saying when they are sold, prescribed and used responsibly, they can provide pain relief for patients.

Won't be 'scapegoats'

The Healthcare Distribution Alliance said in a statement that distributors understand the tragic impact of the opioid epidemic "but we aren't willing to be scapegoats."

Distributors transport medicine and don't make, market, prescribe or dispense the drugs to consumers, the statement said. Pointing responsibility at them "defies common sense and lacks understanding of how the pharmaceutical supply chain actually works," the statement said.

In voluminous separate federal lawsuits filed Thursday on behalf of Ramsey and Washington counties, attorneys from the Minneapolis law firm of Lockridge, Grindal, Nauen alleged nine legal causes of action, including creating a public nuisance, negligence, fraud, unlawful and deceptive trade practices and false statements in advertising. The suits seek to stop the companies from engaging in their unlawful practices and compensate the counties for "past harm and abatement of the nuisance."

The suits are filed through private firms on a contingency basis, meaning the firms assume the cost of investigating and presenting the case, but then collect attorney's fees out of any damage awards they might win.

Hennepin County and other governments are expected to file suit in the coming weeks and months.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said at Thursday's news conference that the lawsuits are part of a three-pronged approach to fighting the epidemic; the other strategies include prosecuting dealers on homicide charges and educating the public about the dangers of the drug.

Though attorneys had no official count of how many Minnesota counties and municipalities will sue, they said they expect a substantial number to do so. Some Minnesota counties and municipalities were aiming to file this week because of a federal hearing on such litigation held Thursday in Missouri.

In Minnesota, officials in St. Louis, Chisago, Mower and Steele counties indicated they would sue, as well as the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The lawsuits are being filed separately, and some may be filed in state court instead of federal court, attorneys said.

"Every county is going to have a different story to tell," Choi said. "There's going to be individualized allegations."

St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin, who was at the news conference, said the crisis extends far beyond metropolitan areas and affects multiple generations. "Babies are being born addicted to these drugs," he said.

Ramsey County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Victoria Reinhardt, also speaking Thursday, said she knew two young men who lost their lives to opioid addiction despite trying very hard to shake it.

Companies are "walking away with a whole lot of money, and it's at our expense," Reinhardt said. "When medications are used correctly, there is good that can come of them, but that's not what's happening here, that's not what we're targeting."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102