updated 10/4/2007 9:38:39 PM ET 2007-10-05T01:38:39

Kentucky officials on Thursday sued the manufacturer of OxyContin, the prescription painkiller dubbed "hillbilly heroin," because of widespread abuse in Appalachia.

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A lawsuit filed by Kentucky Attorney General Greg Stumbo and Pike County officials demands millions in compensation from drug maker Purdue Pharma.

"Make no mistake about it — this is war," said Gary C. Johnson, the county's outside counsel who is handling the case.

The lawsuit seeks reimbursement for costs incurred in drug abuse programs, law enforcement and prescription payments through Medicaid and the Kentucky Pharmaceutical Assistance program.

Drugmaker defends itself
In a statement, Purdue Pharma officials said OxyContin's packaging warns against the dangers of abusing the drug and that the company shouldn't be held responsible for what individuals do.

"We will defend this lawsuit vigorously and we expect to prevail," the statement said.

Filed in Pike County Circuit Court, the lawsuit seeks class-action status for other "similarly situated" counties in the state. It seeks unspecified punitive damages and the creation of a court-monitored fund, financed by Purdue Pharma, that would pay for a program that would notify users of the potential harms of the drug and spur research on the effects of the drug, among other initiatives.

OxyContin — the brand name for oxycodone — has been blamed for hundreds of deaths across the country in recent years. Its intended slow-release effect can be easily circumvented, and abuse has been especially high in Appalachian states such as Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.

At least six eastern Kentucky counties have agreed to participate in the suit, with more expected to join, Johnson said.

Kentucky officials decided to pursue the lawsuit after the drug maker and three of its current or former executives pleaded guilty in May to misleading the public about the drug's risk of addiction. They agreed to pay $634.5 million in fines for claiming the drug was less addictive and less subject to abuse than other pain medications.

The plea agreement came two days after the company agreed to pay $19.5 million to 26 states and Washington, D.C., to settle complaints that it encouraged physicians to overprescribe the drug.

The company said it accepted responsibility for "past misstatements" by company officials.

"We do not believe, however, that those misstatement were responsible for individuals' abuse of OxyContin," the statement said.

In 2006, 484 people died from drug overdoses in Kentucky, according to the state medical examiner's annual report. It found that oxycodone was the chief cause in 16 percent of the deaths.

That's only part of the toll, the plaintiffs claim. They say abuse of prescription drugs including Oxycontin is so rampant in Pike County that the jail underwent a $5.6 million expansion in 2005 to deal with the problem.

"It's ironic that those who manufacture a drug that is meant to ease the pain of those suffering from debilitating diseases and who truly need it have in fact inflicted so much pain by being deceptive and greedy," said Pike County Judge-Executive Wayne T. Rutherford.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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