Josh Shapiro and Frank Burns

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (left) and state Rep. Frank Burns, D-East Taylor. File photos/The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced Thursday that he plans to work with a bipartisan coalition to evaluate whether opioid manufacturers have engaged in unlawful practices in marketing and selling opioids. 

An ongoing nationwide investigation is being conducted to determine what role drug manufacturers may have played in creating or prolonging the opioid epidemic, a news release from Shapiro’s office said.

Shapiro said the coalition of attorneys general is using investigative tools, including subpoenas for documents and testimony, to determine the appropriate course of action. 

The release notes that nationwide and statewide, prescription and illegal opioids are the main cause of drug overdose deaths, with Pennsylvania recording 4,642 fatal drug overdoses in 2016, a 37 percent increase from 2015. 

“The people peddling the drugs ripping apart our towns aren’t only on our street corners,” Shapiro said in the release.

“Three out of four heroin users started by abusing prescription opioids, and our ongoing investigation is going straight into the boardrooms of pharmaceutical companies. We will follow the evidence to hold every person and every company responsible for this tragedy accountable on behalf of Pennsylvanians.

“I’ve seen the pain caused by this crisis and heard from families that have been torn apart,” Shapiro added. “To everyone touched by this epidemic, who has felt the wave of overdose deaths and dealt with the pain of addiction in your family and in your town: We’re fighting back for you.”

Although the coalition of attorneys general is not identifying any targets of its investigation at this time, a local state representative said he was pleased with Shapiro’s announcement, saying it supports legislation he proposed last week. 

State Rep. Frank Burns, D-East Taylor, introduced House Bill 1501, which would require survivors of drug overdoses to seek addiction treatment within 30 days as a means to prevent repeat overdoses.

Burns proposed using money received from a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies to pay for the required addiction treatment.

In February, Burns sent letters to Shapiro and Gov. Tom Wolf urging them to file lawsuits against any and all pharmaceutical companies responsible for the growing opioid crisis “because of their negligence in informing consumers of the dangers of these types of drugs and their ruthless promotion of their use.” 

“‘Big Pharma’ is lining its pockets and the wallets of doctors who prescribe these medications, while the number of people addicted and affected in the commonwealth continues to rise,” Burns wrote. 

Following Shapiro’s announcement, Burns said he’s encouraged that the drug manufacturers’ role and potential culpability in the opioid epidemic is gaining attention.

“I commend the attorney general for making this bold move – and if the evidence leads where I think it will, I encourage Shapiro to file the type of lawsuit I have requested,” Burns said.

“We cannot continue to sit idly by and let these companies profit greatly from the pain, suffering and death of others. They must be held accountable.”

​Jocelyn Brumbaugh is a reporter for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter @JBrumbaughTD.