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Big Pharma Legal Battles Reminiscent of Lawsuits against Tobacco Industry

Maureen Meehan

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As we have often reported, there is a wave of litigation by state attorneys against opioid manufacturers and distributors, such as OxyContin billionaire owners of Purdue Pharma—often referred to as singlehandedly causing the current opioid crisis in the country.

Some U.S. state attorneys general, as well as in Canada, have filed class action lawsuits against these opioid pushing companies—again, mostly Purdue Pharma—over the hazards of their products, misleading information that accompanies them and even for allowing their addictive meds to knowingly be sold on the black market.

National Public Radio likened these cases to the way individual U.S. states sued the tobacco industry in the 1990s.

It all started in back when a biochemist-turned-whistleblower by the name of Jeffrey Wigand appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes in 1996 and stated that the company he was working for, Brown & Williamson, had intentionally manipulated its tobacco blend with chemicals, such as ammonia, to increase the effect of nicotine in cigarette smoke.

Wigand said that he was subsequently harassed and received death threats. An excellent film, The Insider, was made about this.

Ailsa Chang of NPR’s Planet Money interviewed one of the attorneys who was involved in the lawsuit against the tobacco industry and is now involved in the opioid lawsuits.

Here are excerpts from the radio interview with attorney Joe Rice of Charleston, South Carolina, who worked with the late famed attorney Ronald Motley in class-action lawsuits against the tobacco industry, which sold products that caused widespread health problems.

“When lawyers look at tobacco and opioids, they see two powerful industries that raked in billions of dollars. Both pushed an addictive product that sent the country spiraling into a public health crisis. There was misleading marketing, downplayed health risks. And all this overlap may explain why there’s a returning cast of characters,” said NPR’s Chang, starting the interview with Rice, who was the lead negotiator for plaintiffs in a $250 billion settlement with the tobacco industry in 1998, still the biggest civil settlement in history.

Now Rice’s firm is embroiled in the opioid fight.

They’re taking on opioid manufacturers on behalf of the New Hampshire state attorney general, Santa Clara County in California and the city of Chicago.

Chang: What feels harder about this legal fight against the opioid industry than the fight against big tobacco in the ’90s?

Rice: Well, there’s several things. Number one, the FDA did approve this drug. And they had approved it for limited uses and approved it with certain warnings on it.

Chang: Which means manufacturers and distributors might be able to shift some of the blame to the federal government…

Rice: The second issue is, tobacco was a straight product sold from the company to the consumer. Here, you’ve got an intermediary doctor or physician that’s prescribing the drug.

Chang: That’s a point drug companies keep hitting home. There are intermediaries. Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, said in a written statement to NPR that the difference between them and tobacco companies is there are so many more players in the opioid supply chain. And with cigarettes, people who were using the product as directed were getting cancer. Opioids are different.

Jim Tierney, a former attorney general of Maine and an adviser in the tobacco and opioid lawsuits joined the conversation.

Tierney: Inherent in tobacco is that if you use it, your health will disintegrate, and it will eventually kill you. That’s—if opioids are used appropriately, then they can improve your health.

Chang: There’s a legitimate medical need for these drugs, so trying to wipe out the industry isn’t an option. Besides, Tierney says, the lesson learned from the tobacco lawsuits is it’s not how much money states get. It’s how they spend it.

Tierney: So, if you’re going to get money, don’t make the mistake in tobacco and let it be used by whatever the legislature wants. They’ll use it to pave roads. I mean, they don’t—or lower taxes or something preposterous when we have a huge health crisis.

RELATED: Are Drug Overdoses This Generation’s AIDs Crisis?
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