Fighting the opioid epidemic will require more court battles

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New York City’s decision to file a lawsuit this week against eight big pharmaceutical corporations and distributors that ignited the nation’s raging opioid epidemic cannot bring back the hundreds of thousands of loved ones who have perished during this crisis.

But for families like my own that have suffered, it raises some hope that Big Pharma companies may yet be held responsible for their actions.

Unfortunately, accountability has been quite elusive since pill makers began flooding the market with prescription painkillers more than two decades ago.

As far back as 2001, Connecticut’s then-Attorney General (and now U.S. Senator) Richard Blumenthal sounded the warning cry about Oxycontin abuse, publicly urging manufacturer Purdue Pharma to take action to warn about the potential for addiction connected to the drug, which it aggressively marketed as “non-addictive.”

Three years later West Virginia became the first state to sue Purdue in a case that never went to trial and resulted in a $10 million settlement.

In 2007, Purdue finally pleaded guilty to misleading doctors and the public about Oxycontin’s potential for addiction and abuse, paying $600 million in fines and payments to settle the Justice Department case against the company.

By this time addictive pain pills, often snagged from unused bottles in family medicine cabinets, were as readily available as candy in the halls of the high school where my 16-year-old son Tommy, like many teens, was wrestling with his identity.

By 2010, pharmacies in Florida, where we were living, were selling more than 650 million oxycodone pills per year, with 93 of the top opioid-dispensing doctors in the U.S. operating in the state. (Oxycodone is the active ingredient in Oxycontin and is also an ingredient of other pain pills).

Then completely unaware of the word “opioid” or the deadly dagger Tommy was flirting with, my wife and I proceeded through our normal routine one Friday until our son didn’t come home after school.

When Tommy’s cellphone went straight to voicemail, we began a frantic and agonizing four-day search for him. We finally found him in a decrepit, abandoned building on the brink of overdose death. His drug of choice? Oxycontin.

Some 13 overdoses and nine years later, we’ve learned far more about the opioid crisis that we ever could have fathomed. About how easy it is to become addicted even after short-term use. How opioids rewire a person’s brain chemistry in ways that make overcoming the drug nearly impossible.

We also learned about how the stigma carried by the word “heroin” kept this growing problem in the shadows for so long, causing families to suffer in silence for fear of what their neighbors might think, and causing many Americans to mistakenly brush off opioid addiction as a skid row problem and not something that would affect them.

As our son continued to struggle through the vicious cycle of relapse, detox, recovery and repeat, we began to understand the scope of the problem. We count ourselves among the lucky ones, because Tommy has survived and is now doing well.

But we have no illusions that this will ever be over, because as any person who has overcome addiction can attest, it is a lifelong “one day at a time” challenge.

Today’s opioid epidemic can reach any family. It is an equal opportunity destroyer that strikes rural, suburban and urban communities, poor, middle-class and wealthy families – with no regard for race, age or gender.

Last year alone the opioid epidemic claimed more American lives than we lost during the Vietnam War. Nearly 100 people die every single day from either heroin or prescription pill overdose. And that’s just the statistics that are reported. The real toll is certainly higher.

Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies continue to profit from this national tragedy. Since its record settlement in 2007, Purdue has continued to rake in billions of dollars from the sale of its homerun drug Oxycontin, vaulting the company’s family owners onto the Forbes Wealthiest Families in America list.

For those of us who are battle weary from the front lines of the crisis, it is small solace that some prominent Big Pharma actors might once again be found liable.

New York City joins a growing list of cities, counties and states that are suing to bring drug companies to justice in a move reminiscent of Big Tobacco lawsuits years ago. But the politics of greed that have allowed this infection to fester for so many years already make us skeptical that this time will be different.

Since Purdue’s huge settlement, Big Pharma has fought back in a big way, significantly increasing their lobbying efforts at the federal and state levels. According to The Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity, Purdue, other pain pill producers, and their related nonprofit associations spent nearly $900 million on lobbying and political contributions between 2006 and 20015.

The amount spent by the industry’s influence machine is eight times more than the powerful gun lobby spent during the same time period. If anyone wonders how the opioid train rolled down the tracks for so long while politicians or regulatory officials looked the other way, the answers can be found in political spending records.

Similar to the speeches and press conferences that promise to end the opioid crisis, the pledges to make “Big Pharma pay for what they’ve done” will do little to change realities on the ground, at least for years to come. Even if settlements or further restrictions are achieved, it will be too little and too late for most American families coping with opioid addiction.

At least awareness has been heightened by the spate of new lawsuits. Anything we can do to further drag the problem out of the shadows and into the light is an important first step toward education and prevention. It’s hard to battle something that so many don’t even understand.

Sadly, the talk continues to far outpace the walk on the issue of opioid addiction. Most of our public leaders and government officials simply continue to scratch their heads about what to do next.

Until we can go move beyond the headline-grabbing promises to fight this epidemic and pursue the legitimate actions and resources needed to make a dent in it, don’t expect much to change.