In an effort to combat the opioid epidemic that has killed countless Americans, the state of Ohio is suing major pharmaceutical companies across the nation. The state is suing five major opioid manufacturers in the United States that they accuse of profiting from opioids at the expense of thousands of people’s lives. In addition to Ohio’s suit, over 1,000 other lawsuits from various local governments have created one of the biggest civil court cases in U.S. history.
In 2017, the American opioid epidemic was declared a public health emergency by the Department of Health and Human Services. Beginning in the 1990s, some pharmaceutical companies started insisting that people were not at risk of developing an addiction to the opioid pain relievers. This inspired doctors and other health care professionals to begin prescribing them more frequently.
As a result, about 11.4 million Americans have become addicted to prescription painkillers. Today, more people than ever before are misusing prescription medications and nonprescription opioids like heroin. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that roughly 130 people die every day from an opioid overdose.
Outraged and desperate to end the addiction spreading throughout their state, government officials in Ohio issued the first opiate lawsuit in 2018. This action has now become part of a major federal lawsuit issued by over 1,400 local governments throughout the country.
The Opioid Lawsuit
Judge Dan Aaron Polster of the Northern District of Ohio is the man responsible for overseeing the lawsuit. The unique case is one that has garnered widespread attention and the support of thousands of protesters across the nation. Handling such a large case that’s rooted in so many personal stories of addiction and loss has placed Polster at the front lines of America’s fight against opioid addiction.
The Ohio lawsuit alleges that major pharmaceutical companies downplayed the addictive properties of opioid drugs for over two decades in an effort to sell more medication and turn a profit. In addition, these companies are also accused of not administering sufficient screenings for suspicious orders through their distributors.
The city of Cleveland and two counties, Cuyahoga and Summit, filed the lawsuit, which could result in billions of dollars for drug abuse treatment and additional resources to help prevent future epidemics. Now a federal suit, the case is so complex that it could easily take up to four years to reach a settlement, and critics are still uncertain that a lawsuit is a right way to tackle the opioid crisis.
The Ohio opioid trial has been pushed back to September 3, 2019, when it will be presented to the federal court against major drug manufacturers like Purdue Pharma. In the meantime, the opioid crisis continues to garner coverage around the nation as its impact becomes more evident. From rural small towns in West Virginia to major cities like San Francisco, drug use has begun to ravage communities across the nation, and many states are now standing up against the companies they believe to be responsible.
One of Many in the Fight Against Opioid Addiction
The Ohio lawsuit is just one of thousands that have been filed. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is suing seven major pharmaceutical manufacturers and five widespread distributors, including CVS and Walgreens. Bondi accuses the companies of their contribution to the state’s major opioid epidemic, which resulted in over 5,700 deaths in 2016 alone.
Bondi demands that the companies be held responsible for their active role in the crisis, citing that they both created and exacerbated the epidemic. Bondi has said that she wants “billions” from the companies to make up for the devastation and pain they’ve caused thousands of addicts and heartbroken friends and family members.
Some of Bondi’s targets include Purdue Pharma, the creator of the highly abused prescription opiate OxyContin. They also include Endo Pharmaceuticals, the company behind Percocet and Opana, and Johnson & Johnson and some of its subsidiaries, which manufacture Duragesic and Tapentadol.
One of the most noteworthy features of the Florida opioid lawsuit is its indiscriminate nature. From middle schoolers and teens to pregnant women and their infants who are born addicted, opioids have gripped millions of people and robbed thousands of their lives. Florida’s suit and those from other states are seeking damages for these widespread issues.
The Companies Speak Out
In an attempt to negotiate the growing number of lawsuits against its name, Purdue Pharma began offering free opioid therapy in September 2018. The company is one of the primary defendants in both Florida’s and Ohio’s lawsuits. Purdue Pharma is accused of violating consumer safety laws, and over 1,000 lawsuits against the company state that it is responsible for both downplaying the addictive properties of OxyContin while simultaneously exaggerating its benefits.
As a response, Purdue Pharma began giving away buprenorphine, a drug used to treat opioid addiction. Although this may not make up for the opioids that have destroyed so many lives, it’s a step in the right direction. While Purdue Pharma decided to take action in response to the lawsuits, other companies weren’t as forthcoming.
Mike DeAngelis, the senior director of corporate communications at CVS, says that the Florida lawsuit accusations are “without merit” and insists that his company is “committed to the highest ethical standards and business practices.” He also stated that CVS has administered “millions of hours” of training to its pharmaceutical staff, and over the last five years, there has been a 38% percent decrease in opioid distribution.
The Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018
In September 2018, the United States Senate introduced a bill called the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018. The bill was created in collaboration with a variety of leading organizations that fight addiction and drug abuse, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Families and experts also weighed in and contributed to the bill, which features a variety of proposals that will attempt to curb the epidemic. The proposals include:
- Safe disposal stations to prevent unused or unneeded prescription medications from being abused
- Development and improvement of non-opioid pain medications
- Changes to the Cures Grant that will aid Native American tribes that have been deeply affected by the crisis
- First responder training to support emergency staff responding to cases involving fentanyl
The Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018 is a breakthrough in its own right. With federal action bringing greater recognition to the crisis, people are becoming more aware of the need for interventions to provide greater access to rehabilitation and recovery facilities and prevent addiction from spreading.
The biggest hindrance to the bill and all of the outstanding opioid lawsuits is money. Companies will either go bankrupt trying to pay settlements or in the case of the Response Act, Congress could make revisions or deny funding. Treatment is costly, which means that we cannot rely on the government or one industry alone to stop the opioid crisis.
How the Lawsuit Will Change Addiction
Although the results of the trial are likely years off, the impact of the lawsuits is already far-reaching. Both the pharmaceutical industry and the medical field face massive upheaval as new legislation calls for greater regulation and safety measures in the manufacturing, distribution, and prescription of opioids. The FDA is creating a new policy framework that will address the opioid crisis and encourage medical professionals to provide appropriate access to pain management while subsequently reducing the risk of addiction.
Opioid prescriptions have been decreasing since 2012, but some counties have rates seven times higher than the national average. While people obviously need a way to handle their pain from surgical procedures and chronic conditions, the risk of becoming addicted is too high to continue to rely solely on the drugs that largely contributed to the epidemic currently underway.
The FDA recommends a multidisciplinary approach to treatment that will, hopefully, become more popular across the industry. If stricter limitations are passed and placed on dispensers, opioid prescriptions will be harder to attain, which will make people turn to alternative sources for pain management. These sources could include physical therapy, behavioral therapy, and other interventional procedures.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has partnered with many states in an effort to combat opioid addiction and illegal drug abuse. By educating public safety officials and law enforcement, the organization seeks to improve the way illegal opioid use is addressed. Supporting health care facilities with emerging data, tools and guidance should help reduce the number of opioid prescriptions, leading to fewer users and less access overall.
Knowing the Warning Signs
Many people who become addicted to opiate medications don’t have a prior history of substance use disorder. Drug abuse is never linear or predictable, although many people who are introduced to a drug through prescriptions later go on to try illegal substances in search of the same high.
If you or a loved one has been prescribed a medication like OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet or Duragesic, you may be at risk of developing an addiction without even knowing it. Some common opiate medication warning signs to watch out for include:
- Track marks on arms or legs
- Frequent constipation
- Mood swings
- Constricted pupil (“pinprick”)
- Itchy or flushed skin
- Changes in sleeping patterns, including difficulty falling asleep or staying awake as well as sleeping more or less than usual
- Impulsive actions and decision-making
When drug abuse is evident, it’s important to speak up. Whether you’re approaching a loved one or concerned about yourself, it’s important, to be honest about the problem and address it from a position of concern, not criticism.
Drug abuse is a complex problem, but research shows that rehab is the best way to treat it. No single treatment will work for everyone, which is why lawsuits and legislative changes will hopefully increase funding and lead to greater diversity in state and federal programs.
Like all substance use disorders, opioid addiction is a complicated problem, and there’s no cure-all we can expect to fix it. In order to prevent greater tragedy, we must first combat the individual addictions and help guide people to recovery.
It’s our mission to ensure that anyone in need of treatment for opioid addiction or any other type of drug addiction can find the help they need to become sober. Real stories from real people, survivors and recovered addicts alike can be a major tool for educating youth and the general public about the risks of opioids and how to prevent falling prey to them.