DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The opioid epidemic claimed 70,000 lives in 2017. To put that in perspective, that is more than the number of people who died annually at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. And the pharmaceutical industry is going to spend much of this year answering some hard questions. Many blame pharma for our country's opioid crisis. And this year, big drug makers, as well as pharmacy chains, are facing more than 1,500 lawsuits filed by state and local governments. Billions of dollars are at stake, and so are reputations. Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, CVS - those are just some of the companies targeted in these lawsuits.
Brian Mann from North Country Public Radio has been following these lawsuits for NPR and joins me. Hi, Brian.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: I mean, it's really hard to overstate the scope and scale of this crisis.
MANN: Yeah, it's painful. The Centers for Disease Control say there are still more than 100 Americans dying every day from overdoses related to prescription opioids. It's wrecked families. It's costing taxpayers tens of billions of dollars a year. So, you know, if companies lose some of these lawsuits, they could wind up paying huge damages.
GREENE: Well, and the drug companies, I mean, they're really paying another price already no matter how these lawsuits end up, right? I mean that there are internal company documents that are being made public, and some of them have been controversial, you've been finding.
MANN: Yeah, that's right. We're seeing internal memos, some for the first time. Purdue executives, for example, can be seen secretly acknowledging that their prescription opioids were far more addictive and dangerous than they were telling doctors. At the same time, company directives kept pushing sales, pushing the salespeople incredibly hard to get more opioids into the hands of vulnerable people, including seniors and military veterans.
We've also learned that Purdue Pharma executives developed a secret plan they called Project Tango, which they allegedly hoped might help them profit again from the growing wave of opioid addiction. The idea here was to sell addiction treatment services to some of the same people addicted to products like their own OxyContin.
And, David, I want to talk you through some of the voices I've been hearing about all of this. I'm going to start with Joe Rice. He's one of the lead attorneys suing big pharma. And he says it's important the public sees these documents.
JOE RICE: Our next battle is to get the depositions and the documents that are being produced made available to the public instead of being - everything being filed under a confidentiality agreement.
MANN: This approach represents a big shift in the way these lawsuits are being handled. It turns out state and federal governments have actually been taking big pharma to court over the opioid crisis for more than a decade, and they've been winning. In most of those past cases, companies paid fines. But the settlements involved gag orders.
DAVID ARMSTRONG: In Kentucky, Purdue Pharma produced two million pages of documents. And the attorney general, when they settled that case, agreed to destroy them.
MANN: That's David Armstrong, a reporter for ProPublica who's covered the opioid crisis for years, breaking big stories about the industry. The Kentucky case he's talking about was settled four years ago. He says the same thing happened back in 2007 when the Justice Department ended a major criminal case against Purdue.
ARMSTRONG: The way it usually works is when they settle these cases, the language in the settlement requires either that the records be destroyed very quickly after the settlement or that they physically actually return the records to the drug company.
MANN: Which means for more than a decade, no one in the wider public knew how serious the allegations against Purdue and these other drug companies were. But this time, states and cities suing these companies seem eager to sort of pull back the curtain.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
MAURA HEALEY: We've done something that hasn't been done before.
MANN: Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey appeared last month on NPR and WBUR's program On Point. Her office is suing Purdue, and as part of the case, they fought to make all the documents they then covered public, without redactions. And they won earlier this year.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
HEALEY: What Purdue's own documents show is the extent of deception and deceit. So, you know, what is important to me is that the facts come to light, and we get justice and accountability.
MANN: Purdue Pharma declined to speak with NPR. But the drug industry has fought these disclosures at every turn. They describe the information in these documents as proprietary, basically arguing it's corporate property. But as more and more information comes out, it's making people angry. New Hampshire Senator Maggie Hassan blasted industry executives at a hearing last month in Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MAGGIE HASSAN: Companies like Janssen and Purdue Pharma fueled this epidemic, employing deceptive and truly unconscionable marketing tactics despite the known risks so you could sell more drugs to maximize your profits.
MANN: Jennifer Taubert heads the Janssen pharmaceutical division of Johnson & Johnson, which makes and sells opioids. Here's how she responded.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JENNIFER TAUBERT: Everything that we have done with our products when we promoted opioid products, which we stopped marketing a long time ago, was very appropriate and responsible.
MANN: But according to the drug company's own documents, firms including Johnson & Johnson pushed unscientific theories about drug addiction. They did so allegedly to convince doctors to prescribe even more opioids after patients showed signs of dependency. David Armstrong, the reporter with ProPublica, says this kind of disclosure is making it harder for the industry to protect its image.
ARMSTRONG: The narrative is clearly shifting on this story. People want some sort of reckoning, some sort of accounting.
MANN: And I should say, David, that we've seen this kind of thing before when tobacco companies were sued back in the 1990s, and the public then learned for the first time about widespread wrongdoing. The difference here is that these drug companies and their researchers have been seen by the public as healers and innovators who can be trusted to make products that help us when we're sick. And now that trust is taking a huge hit.
GREENE: I'm talking to reporter Brian Mann, who's been covering the opioid crisis for NPR. And, Brian, just listening to everything you've said there, it makes me wonder what's next. There's a trial coming up in Oklahoma, right?
MANN: That's right. And attorneys are still fighting over millions of pages of documents. And the people I've spoken to say there could be more smoking guns, more evidence of really bad behavior we don't know about yet. One real possibility, though, is that there could be what's known as a global settlement of these opioid cases, where companies agree to pay billions of dollars. If that happens, David, you know, history could repeat itself. The documents we haven't seen yet telling the full story of this epidemic, they could be destroyed or hidden away.
GREENE: Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio who covers these opioid lawsuits for NPR. Thanks, Brian.
MANN: Thank you, David.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLEEPSTREAM'S "BLUE (ASCENSION)")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.