“Recently my advertising agency ended a long relationship with Lucky Strike cigarettes, and I’m relieved.” – Don Draper, “Mad Men”.
Like Don Draper “quitting” cigarettes, more lawmakers and health researchers are ready to fight the makers of OxyContin and other opioid painkillers.
In January 2017, the City of Everett, Washington filed a lawsuit against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma. Purdue Pharma filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, and the court’s decision might come soon. Follow the City of Everett’s take here and some of the pushback from Purdue Pharma here.
A number of U.S. states and individual plaintiffs have filed similar lawsuits. Plaintiffs typically allege that drugmakers have misled the public about the addictive qualities of OxyContin and other opioids, causing an epidemic of addicted patients buying opioids and heroin on the black market.
Drug companies have pushed back by stressing the need to use opioid painkillers responsibly. The companies also allege that the use of contingency fee agreements by law firms representing various plaintiffs amounts to a money grab and shakedown of the painkiller industry.
Some results are now in. In 2007, Purdue Pharma and three of its executives agreed to pay $634.5 million in fines and pled guilty to criminal charges of misleading the public about the addictive qualities of OxyContin. Just days prior, Purdue Pharma agreed to pay $19.5 million to 26 states and the District of Columbia to settle allegations that the company encouraged physicians to overprescribe OxyContin.
No matter the legal outcomes, the health toll is real. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 300,000 Americans have died of opioid overdoses since the year 2000. The Oregon Health Authority now states that “[i]n Oregon, more drug poisoning deaths involve prescription opioids than any other type of drug, including alcohol, methamphetamines, heroin and cocaine. An average of 3 Oregonians die every week from prescription opioid overdose, and many more develop opioid use disorder.”
A bit of history may help predict the way forward. Under the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement of 1998, tobacco companies are now shielded from many lawsuits in exchange for modified sales practices and annual tobacco fund payments to the states. Will the opioid epidemic follow a similar legal pattern? The answer is probably yes, but the economic terms and long-term effectiveness of a potential master settlement are yet to be shaped by the results of many lawsuits.