Are Pharmaceutical Companies to Blame for the Opioid Epidemic?

June 2, 2017

Recent lawsuits are asking courts whether the current crisis is comparable to the one over tobacco in the ’90s
Opioid abuse is rampant in states like Ohio, where paramedics are increasingly spending time responding to overdoses and where coroners’ offices are running out of room to store bodies. In 2012, there were 793 million doses of opioids prescribed in the state, enough to supply every man, woman, and child, with 68 pills each. Roughly 20 percent of the state’s population was prescribed an opioid in 2016. And Ohio leads the nation in overdose deaths.

Who is responsible for this? Some attorneys general and advocates are now asking in court whether the pharmaceutical companies who marketed the drugs and downplayed their addictive nature can be held legally responsible for—and made to pay for the consequences of—the crisis. This may not be such an outlandish idea; in fact, there’s a good precedent. In 1998, the tobacco industry, 46 states, and six other jurisdictions entered into the largest civil-litigation settlement agreement in U.S. history. State attorneys general had sued tobacco companies, arguing that the companies should take up the burden of paying for the costs of treating smoking-related diseases. In the settlement, which left the tobacco industry immune from future state and federal suits, the companies agreed to make annual payments to the states, in perpetuity, to fund public-health programs and anti-smoking campaigns.