In May, Ohio became the latest and largest government entity to sue major pharmaceutical manufacturers for their role in propagating an opioid addiction crisis.
Statistics there are appalling: In 2016, more than 4,000 Ohioans died from drug overdoses, a 36 percent leap from 2015 and more than any other state. Astoundingly, about 20 percent of Ohio’s population was prescribed an opioid last year.
Closer to home, several counties in New York — including Nassau and Suffolk — have sued Big Pharma for the industry’s role in the widespread distribution of what is, essentially, legal heroin. Illinois, Mississippi, and two counties in California have filed similar suits.
It’s progress. But in a country where about 60,000 people died from overdoses last year, it’s nowhere near enough. Drugs are the leading killer of Americans younger than 50, and more than half of overdoses are attributable to opioids, which, alone, now kill Americans in roughly equal numbers as gun violence.
As a recovering alcoholic, I’ve seen the figures confirm the horrific pattern developing in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous: Increasingly, young people are primarily addicted to opioids rather than alcohol or other drugs.
Though addiction is addiction, all drugs are not created equal. While those who relapse on liquor, marijuana or even cocaine tend to eventually resurface in AA, those who relapse on prescription painkillers or heroin tend to resurface in the obituary pages. Opioids are far more lethal and, with deadly irony, especially likely to lead to overdoses following periods of clean time.
We cannot keep losing our children, spouses and dear friends. This has to stop — now.
Like in politics, as Ohio goes, so goes the nation. To save lives, state and local governments must follow suit by filing suit. It sounds incredible given the slumbering pace and corporate privilege that permeate our legal system, but the most effective way to reach this goal is through the courts.
It’s time for a war on drug companies, a fight whose outcome will be determined more by the number of legal battles than their individual outcomes. The goal isn’t seven-figure settlements, but rather persistent pressure and public shaming. So, the slow trickle of lawsuits must become a raging river — a flood that inundates Big Pharma with costly legal defenses and even more costly publicity disasters.
Articles have been written debating whether governments have a legal leg to stand on in suing Big Pharma over the opioid epidemic. They point out that — unlike tobacco, the closest historical example — opioid painkillers actually have a viable medical use.
What they ignore is a far more important comparison: Opioids can accomplish in 20 minutes what it takes tobacco 20 years to do. Namely, kill consumers.
For decades, pharmaceutical companies have reaped massive profits by vastly downplaying the addictive nature of a class of painkillers so similar to heroin that, today, many heroin addicts trace their addiction to prescription painkillers. In the hallowed name of market share, Big Pharma misled doctors about the likelihood of addiction, prompting their widespread prescription and prolific menace.
In suing Big Pharma, the decisions that matter most will come from the court of public opinion. Regardless of whether lawsuits are won, we must make these dangerous drugs so demonized that their production dwindles and administration is limited across the country to tightly defined forums: end-of-life care, cancer treatment, and high-level chronic pain.
Sue them. Sue them all. And if a lawsuit gets thrown out, sue them again over something else. Desperate times call for drastic measures, and our loved ones’ lives are at stake.
Christopher Dale is a freelance writer who writes on society, politics and issues about sobriety.