Taking a Page from Big Tobacco’s Book: States Are Challenging Opioid Manufacturers

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By Kate Harveston

What do big tobacco, big oil and big pharma all have in common? Four things:

They all lied about the harm caused by their products, they chose to sell those products even though they fully understood why doing so was dangerous, they all amassed gigantic fortunes because of their deception, and now they all have to pay their debt to society.

In 2017, tobacco companies began airing legally mandated “ads” to “correct their record” on decades of lying about the harmful effects of smoking. Better late than never. But borrowing from that playbook, individuals and organizations across the world are suing energy companies for contributing knowingly to climate change for more than a century.

It’s big pharma’s turn. As of May 2019, 44 states in the U.S. had sued Purdue Pharma alone, essentially making the Sackler family the face of the political and public backlash against the industry’s role in the opioid epidemic. Hundreds (probably thousands, by the time things settle) of other lawsuits are pending, in addition to these, with targets large and small from the pharmaceutical world — manufacturers, prescribing doctors, pharmacies, distributors and more.

So, who is being challenged in court — and by whom? And why is this important right now?

Who’s Suing Whom, and Why?

Let’s look at three states with legal challenges to big pharma that exemplify this movement, in order to figure out who’s being taken to task for the opioid epidemic.

First is the state of New York, which has filed what some refer to as “the most comprehensive” lawsuit of its kind. The target of the lawsuit is Purdue Pharma, owned by the Sacklers, and one of the most significant manufacturers of OxyContin. New York and other states aren’t targeting this and other manufacturers for producing a drug with the potential for abuse and addiction. They’re being targeted because of the companies’ aggressive marketing and sales tactics, despite knowing about that potential for abuse.

It’s also because the Sackler family systematically removed money from the Purdue coffers and placed it in personal trusts — both to hide their profiteering and to, more than likely, hedge their bets against precisely this turn of events.

The city of Annapolis, Maryland, has launched a similar lawsuit, for similar reasons, against opioid manufacturers and prescribers. Their most public targets are Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Endo Health Solutions and many other household and esoteric names. The city seeks damages of $400 million.

The state of Oklahoma is on the warpath as well. The state has made Johnson & Johnson the target of their ire. Since this is a state and not a city, the damages collected could be huge — up to $17.5 billion. Representing the state, attorney Michael Burrage took a moment to read from the book “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” and reminded Johnson & Johnson of one of the book’s most important takeaways — “clean up your own mess.”

If Oklahoma is successful in their efforts, the funds collected as Johnson & Johnson “cleans up their mess” would be used for drug screenings and other addiction prevention programs, and to build safe needle exchanges in areas where the abuse of injectable opioid substitutes, like heroin, are common.

In a separate case, Oklahoma accepted a settlement from the Sackler family for $270 million.

What Happens from Here, and Why Are These Cases Important?

The question now is what happens from here. As mentioned, some of the targets of these lawsuits are choosing to settle with the cities or states bringing action against them. Settlements are what happens when you’re not optimistic about your chances if your case actually goes to court.

One potentially huge wrinkle in these cases is that Purdue Pharma is, conveniently, mulling filing for bankruptcy. After years of profiting from pain, the company is considering a move that will either greatly delay and reduce the payout and resolution victims are waiting for or suspend the legal proceedings in an ill-understood limbo with an even more uncertain outcome.

Nevertheless, it’s looking more and more like the law is on the public’s side this time around. As of May 2019, one count said more than 1,600 separate states, cities and even counties in the U.S. are suing the manufacturers, distributors and prescribers who exacerbated a public health crisis to pursue profit.

As mentioned, the last many decades have seen the public win back control of the narrative from big tobacco, big oil and now big pharma. This latest flurry of legal action, which is only gaining support and steam, is an important next step in that pattern.

As for why this is important? Let’s not forget the stakes — 130 U.S. citizens die every day from opioid-related overdoses. In 2017, 47,000 people lost their lives at a total cost of $78 billion for the year in health care and treatments, lost productivity and criminal justice proceedings. This is about preventing unnecessary future tragedy and about securing justice for those already claimed.

Too many voices in modern politics today believe — or rather want others to believe — that corporate power can police itself. It can’t and it doesn’t. And it turns out lots of folks have known this for some time — even before Boeing put its own tragic cherry on top.

There’s no putting back together the victims and families that were torn apart by the opioid epidemic. But with enough public pressure, enough CEOs behind bars, and enough appropriately strict regulations, we can work to ensure that, at the very least, nobody else borrows this business model again in the future.

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