The companies that make and sell highly addictive painkillers are facing a barrage of lawsuits for the toll their product has taken on communities as the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history continues, reports the Washington Post. In the past year, at least 25 states, cities and counties have filed civil cases against manufacturers, distributors and large drugstore chains that make up the $13 billion-a-year opioid industry. In the past few weeks, the attorneys general for Ohio and Missouri, along with the district attorneys for three counties in Tennessee, filed suits. The Oklahoma attorney general sued on Friday. The strategy echoes the effort against major tobacco companies in the 1990s and is born of similar frustration over rising death rates and the increasing costs of addressing the public health crisis.
Some lawyers say the suits could force the industry to change. “If they’re not going to do it voluntarily, we’re going to drag them to the table and make them,” said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who sued five drug manufacturers for the costs of the opioid epidemic. Dozens of other state, county and city governments and law enforcement agencies are considering legal action. More than half of state attorneys general have banded together to investigate the industry, as are two congressional panels, and the Justice Department’s inspector general is investigating why the Drug Enforcement Administration slowed enforcement efforts against drug companies. The firms deny wrongdoing. Winning the lawsuits will not be easy, said University of Kentucky law Prof. Richard Ausness. He said it is more likely that the companies will settle rather than try to defend themselves against perhaps hundreds of lawsuits. “I think what’s going on, and this is what happened in the tobacco litigation, is that the plaintiffs never actually won a case,” he said. “What they did is they drove up the cost of litigation so much that the defendants finally settled.”