Image from NBC New York 

There is no question our nation is facing an epidemic.

Opioid addiction and associated heroin use is widespread – and our community is unfortunately not immune. In fact, a recent study by Rochester-based Common Ground Health suggests Chemung County has the highest rate of opioid abuse in the Finger Lakes region. A link to an article describing the study is found here, and the study itself is found here.

Although Common Ground’s conclusion that Chemung County’s problem is worse than surrounding communities has been met with some skepticism because the metric on which it is based – Emergency Department visits related to opioid abuse – could be skewed based on socio-economic factors, it is nonetheless clear that we must to everything we can to address this issue head on.

In my law practice at the Ziff Law Firm, I frequently represent people who are prescribed opioids following an injury or illness. Although I am careful to never offer medical advice, I try to speak openly with my clients about the risks these medications pose over time. Despite our discussions, a fair number of my clients have developed opioid dependency or addiction, something that upends not only their lives but those of their family members and friends as well.

I have had a chance to observe two recent presentations to the Chemung County Legislature on opioid and heroin abuse. The first was given last fall by two representatives from the Chemung County Sheriff’s Department on its recent initiative called “Project Hope”. A link to an article about “Project Hope” is found here.

In the presentation, Investigator Pete Ruhmel and Captain Doug Houper explained that opioid and heroin abuse is increasing across Chemung County, and they provided sobering statistics showing the problem is not limited to one geographical area or demographic.

Last month Brian Hart, Director of Community Services for the Chemung County Mental Hygiene Department, presented a similar report, and encouraged Chemung County to continue supporting his department’s work to combat this growing problem.

Following each presentation I expected that the Legislature would undertake action toward joining a class action lawsuit that has been brought on behalf of numerous counties from New York and other states, as well as several cities, alleging pharmaceutical  companies engaged in deceptive marketing practices meant to minimize the addiction risks associated with opioids.

In fact, after Brian Hart’s presentation on January 22, 2018 – almost one month ago – I asked Deputy County Executive Mike Krusen if Chemung County intended to join the lawsuit. He said he believed so, but to the best of my knowledge there has yet to be any discussion on this issue within the Legislature.

At least 20 counties in New York have joined or are in the process of joining the lawsuit, including the upstate counties of Broome, Steuben, Tompkins, Seneca, Sullivan, Schenectady, Schoharie, Rensselear, Niagara, Orange, and Oswego, as well as the City of Ithaca.

The tenor of the lawsuit is similar to those brought by municipalities in the 1990’s against tobacco companies, something that not only resulted in huge monetary recovery but also drastic changes to the way tobacco companies do business. Indeed, the language at the start of Tompkins County’s lawsuit – albeit somewhat proactive – makes clear what this lawsuit is all about:

“This case is about one thing: corporate greed. Defendants put their desire for profits above the health and well-being of Tompkins County consumers at the cost of the plaintiff.”

Articles describing the lawsuit’s current procedural posture can be found here, here and here.

Chemung County needs to become part of this lawsuit in order to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for what the opioid epidemic is doing to our community. There is simply no good reason for us to sit on the sidelines.


Christina Sonsire