NOEL KING, HOST:
2019 might be the year that we start thinking and responding differently to this country's opioid epidemic. Over the next 12 months, a wave of lawsuits will land in state and federal courts. These civil cases target some of the biggest drugmakers and distributors in the United States. Companies like Walmart, Rite Aid and Purdue Pharma face claims that could total tens of billions of dollars.
Brian Mann is a reporter for North Country Public Radio, and he's one of the reporters covering the opioid crisis for NPR. Hi, Brian.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.
KING: What's the wrong that's being alleged here?
MANN: So in the 1990s, there was this growing pressure in the health care industry to treat pain more aggressively. A company called Purdue Pharma created a game-changing time-release opioid called OxyContin. And they marketed it really aggressively to doctors as a safe medication, not something that had to be treated as highly addictive. Here's one of Purdue's advertisements. This was part of their marketing campaign aimed at physicians.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In fact, the rate of addiction amongst pain patients who are treated by doctors is much less than 1 percent. They do not have serious medical side effects. And so these drugs should be used much more than they are for patients in pain.
MANN: So the claim in these lawsuits is that dozens of other companies, drugmakers, suppliers and pharmacies also made billions of dollars flooding the U.S. with these prescription pain pills. And critics say there was a concerted effort by these firms to mislead the public and physicians about the dangers and also to conceal the fact that so many pills were being sold, far more pills than made any sense for legitimate medical purposes.
KING: Give us a sense of the scale of the opioid problem now.
MANN: The federal government says in 2016 and again in 2017, more than 40,000 people died from opioid overdoses. The growing number of people who become addicted are also overwhelming government agencies, everything from law enforcement to drug rehab clinics to foster care programs. And that's, Noel, where a lot of these lawsuits come in. Thousands of local and state governments, tribes, cities - they've sued, claiming that these companies deliberately downplayed the dangers and should now pick up the tab for helping addicts and for slowing the epidemic.
KING: Well, what's interesting is that we have seen this before. In the 1990s, tobacco companies agreed to settlements. And they ended up paying out more than a hundred billion dollars, some of which went to health programs aimed at helping smokers quit. If there is a settlement here, could the money be used for that type of thing?
MANN: Yeah, exactly. So what these local governments are claiming first is that drug companies should be punished financially for alleged wrongdoing and creating this epidemic. But local and state officials also say they just desperately need this cash to solve the crisis. Remember; a lot of the worst opioid abuse is happening in poor, cash-strapped communities. So a settlement worth tens of billions of dollars could revolutionize the national response. It could create a lot more drug rehab programs, more detox beds, more training for first responders.
KING: Brian, some of the corporations being sued here - Walgreens, Walmart, CVS - those are pharmacies. They fill prescriptions. Why would they be implicated here?
MANN: Yeah, so one of the arguments being made here is that these companies should have known that they were selling too many pills, helping to create dangerous levels of addiction and also a new black market. I should say experts I talked to say they think a lot of the specific claims in these lawsuits will eventually be tossed out for technical legal reasons.
But the same experts tell me a lot of evidence has emerged already that suggests significant wrongdoing by some of these companies. And we're also in the discovery phase now. That's when these companies are being forced to reveal more of their internal documents that could leave them vulnerable. Richard Ausness is a law professor I talked to at the University of Kentucky. He follows these cases closely.
RICHARD AUSNESS: The judge has made it clear. He wants a settlement ultimately from this sort of along the lines of the tobacco settlement. If that is indeed the way he feels, he's probably not going to let the defendants off the hook.
MANN: I should say that this federal judge, Dan Polster in Ohio, hasn't been able to convince companies and these local governments to reach some kind of national settlement. So that sets the stage for these big court fights around the country over the next 12 months.
KING: Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio, we'll be following these opioid lawsuits around the country over the next year. He's going to be working with NPR, and we'll be checking back in as things develop. Thanks so much.
MANN: Thank you.
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