By FOCUS, a Leonine Business
As the opioid crisis continues to rage on across the country, two distinct approaches to combatting the problem are beginning to take shape, both coming at the state level but from different branches of state government. While state lawmakers are looking to curtail the issue through restrictions on prescriptions and increased funding for substance abuse care, state attorneys general have begun to ramp up a more combative approach, going directly after drug manufacturers for what they say is intentionally fueling the crisis by getting patients who use their products addicted to the drugs, and lying to doctors and patients about the potential harm from their products.
In what is shaping up to be the largest legal showdown since the series of state lawsuits that led to the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement in 1998, at least 27 states have now filed suit against pharmaceutical manufacturer Purdue Pharma LP, the maker of the well-known prescription opioid OxyContin. The issue is one that largely transcends party lines – with both Democratic and Republican attorneys general filing suits against the pharmaceutical giant.
In the past month alone, Colorado, New York and Vermont have all filed suit against Purdue, increasing pressure on the already embattled manufacturer. The state lawsuits all read nearly identically, claiming that the opioid giant engaged in a long-term misinformation campaign aimed at downplaying the risks of opioid use and addiction while at the same time encouraging their use for even minor forms of pain. A second major part of the states’ lawsuits alleges that the products have acted as a gateway to more dangerous opioids, such as heroin and fentanyl. Research from the National Institute on Drug Abuse backs this up, finding that many users of heroin got their start by abusing prescription painkillers.
At the federal level, President Donald Trump has even made explicit threats to sue opioid manufacturers over their role in creating the ongoing crisis, though such a lawsuit has yet to materialize. Should the Justice Department join the states in their litigation, it would represent a major escalation in an ongoing battle between the two sides.
While numerous state attorneys general have waged high profile campaigns and lawsuits against the pharmaceutical manufacturers, state lawmakers have long been working quietly and in a more measured manner to address the crisis than their bombastic counterparts in the executive branch. So far at least 25 states – including many of those hit hardest by the crisis – have passed laws limiting the amount of opioid painkillers that may be provided in an initial prescription, ranging from 14 days’ worth in Nevada, to three days in Florida.
The efforts of lawmakers have paid off on other fronts as well. Nearly every state has expanded access to Naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug, all while expanding the required use of prescription drug monitoring programs, which aim to prevent patients from “doctor shopping” or prescribers from overprescribing.
How states act in the coming years will largely hinge on the outcome of the numerous lawsuits against Purdue and other manufacturers. Should the states come out on top, lawmakers will suddenly find themselves awash in a large inflow of cash that could be used to further push the goal of drug use prevention or to plug other budgetary holes. In either outcome, most states will likely continue to push for new measures to prevent drug addiction and treat those who have already found themselves addicted.