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Editorial: Lawsuit may help recovery of those affected by opioid addiction


Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Treating America’s opioid addiction crisis is, tragically, creating a growth industry that provides long-term intervention and treatment for millions of our fellow citizens. But who is going to pay the tab? Families? Insurance companies? State, local and federal governments?

Big Pharma has a responsibility and will join the list, especially if many of the nation’s cities and states have their way, in court.

Greenfield has become the first community in Massachusetts to file a lawsuit against opioid distributors and manufacturers, joining dozens of other state and local jurisdictions across the country that are looking for financial reparations for the ongoing epidemic. About 2 million people in America are said to be addicted to prescription painkillers, and at least another half million to heroin.

The Greenfield lawsuit contends the drug makers and distributors were negligent in not adequately controlling the overuse and abuse of their dangerous products. Congress passed a law in 1970 to have manufacturers “halt suspicious orders and control against the diversion of these dangerous drugs to illegitimate uses,” according to the suit in the U.S. District Court in Springfield.

Greenfield Mayor William Martin hopes this lawsuit will do two things: Raise awareness of the extent of the problem locally, and help the town cope with the expensive consequences of the epidemic.

“We wouldn’t have this situation if we didn’t have lax monitoring of opioids,” Martin argues.

The defendants named in the suit include big-name companies like Teva Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson, Janssen Pharmaceuticals and Purdue Pharma.

Purdue Pharma responded to the Greenfield lawsuit saying “We are deeply troubled by the prescription and illicit opioid abuse crisis, and are dedicated to being part of the solution. ... We vigorously deny these allegations and look forward to the opportunity to present our defense.” We’ll see if they can have it both ways.

This case — perhaps like similar ones that eventually won billions in damages from the cigarette industry in the 1990s — could help pay for the societal costs of recovery and treatment of today’s and tomorrow’s addicts. It would be a just outcome if the courts find the drug makers did, in fact, underplay the addictive nature of the drugs, while pushing their prescription by doctors eager to ease their patients’ pain.

Sadly, even draining the deep pockets of pharmaceutical companies won’t cover the massive costs the nation is just beginning to incur, because we are still a long way from stamping out this national plague — which by many measures is still growing.

It’s a disease easily acquired and dreadfully difficult to overcome, as the powerful, mind-altering drugs hijack the brain’s chemistry and rewire its circuitry in ways difficult to reverse.

Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, a co-founder of the regional opioid task force, agreed with the goal of the lawsuit.

“Opioid manufacturers and distributors need to be held accountable for their outrageous sales and marketing practices,” Sullivan said in a statement. “Their reckless conduct has inflicted death and sorrow in every community in America. The funds recovered should go toward prevention, treatment and recovery.”

We applaud the effort by Greenfield and other communities to seek financial help from those who may be culpable for this epidemic.

But even with big bucks from Big Pharma, we wonder just how much society will end up paying for this epidemic — not just in ways that we measure in dollars and cents, but also in the personal and family pain and suffering no pill or financial settlement can ease.