Few, if any, places have been spared from the opioid epidemic that has ravaged the United States this decade. From 2000 to 2015, the rate of overdose deaths involving opioids in the United States more than tripled.
States and municipalities have used a wide variety of methods to combat the epidemic, with varying levels of success.
This year, a new strategy in the fight has emerged: attacking the pharmaceutical companies that market the drugs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of all opioid overdose deaths in 2016 involved prescriptions.
State attorneys general and county district attorneys across the country have filed or signed onto lawsuits that claim the companies downplayed the drugs’ addictive nature and can be held legally responsible. In New York, at least eight counties—Broome, Dutchess, Erie, Niagara, Orange, Seneca, Suffolk and Sullivan—have filed lawsuits. Last week, Wyoming County approved a resolution to allow research into filing a lawsuit, and Genesee County has indicated it is considering one as well.
The lawsuits are similar to the legal action taken against the tobacco industry in the 1990s, which led to the largest civil-litigation settlement agreement in U.S. history.
This week’s RBJ Snap Poll asks readers whether pharmaceutical companies should be held responsible for the country’s opioid epidemic. A majority—53 percent—says pharmaceutical companies have contributed to the opioid epidemic but are not the biggest cause.
More than 350 participated in this week’s poll conducted Aug. 22 and 23.
How do you feel about pharmaceutical companies’ culpability for the opioid epidemic?
They are the biggest cause — 20%
They are a cause but not the biggest — 53%
They are not to blame — 27%
The pharmaceutical companies and the medical community share prominent roles in this situation many families find themselves in. I believe most of us know someone that has lost a loved one to these pain “killers.” As parents and grandparents, we should all do everything in our power to never allow our children or grandchildren to be prescribed these opioid-based drugs by a doctor or dentist. As our company we are doing all we can to protect our employees and their families from this disaster. The time for action is now.
— Victor E. Salerno, CEO, O’Connell Electric Company, Inc.
95% or more of the problem is due to unethical members of the medical profession who write prescriptions either for patients they don’t know or for quantities considerably in excess of what’s needed. I’ve never been given a prescription for a controlled substance for more than the minimum.
— Hal Gaffin, Fairport
When will people start taking personal responsibility for their own actions??? Because of people’s personal abuse, legitimate medical needs of patients who need this medication is being limited. Shall we sue the liquor companies and beer companies because some customers abuse their products? McDonald’s because some of their food can make you fat after you chose to eat too much of it? The lawyers and Govt entities will waste any money you give them. You saw how the tobacco money just disappeared into the politicians’ favorite cause or “alternative use” of the moment back then.
— Brian Urban
Let’s really examine this. The general public needs medications to manage pain, whether from injury, surgery or whatever. The Pharmaceutical industry, very heavily regulated by the FDA, responds to this demand and spends billions of dollars developing and testing them. The Pharmaceutical industry must go through rigorous testing to ultimately gain approval. Side effects are generously listed (pages on pages of them in the PDR) and the medications must be prescribed by a doctor and dispensed by a pharmacist. Both the doctors and pharmacists are heavily regulated. And now there is an epidemic. Before we assess blame, we should determine what’s causing the epidemic! Who prescribes these medications? Who dispenses them? Who counterfeit manufactures them because maybe it’s cheaper than smuggling cocaine and other drugs? Why do we have and why do we (society) tolerate the epidemic of all drug (legal and illegal) use? To ascribe blame to the manufacturer for the crisis would be the equivalent of saying the car manufacturer is to blame for the accident caused by speeding!! Do we want to bring an end to drug development? This would be a good way to start. How about we blame the FDA? How about we blame the doctors who (over) prescribe it? To blame the drug companies seems to just be another big money grab by governments so they can fund their boondoggles! We did this to cigarette manufacturers and have collected untold billions but to what end?
— Keith B Robinson, Diamond Packaging
You can’t blame auto accidents on car makers. There is a need for different prescriptions to treat ailments, but overprescribing is a problem. Doctors and pharmacists must be more diligent. They get to see who is getting the pills and who may be abusing them. Giving opioids to patients with minor or no true ailment is how the pills get on the street. If a drug that cured cancer was found to be abused by some people, would that drug be banned?
— Tom Walpole
I agree pharmaceutical companies are partly responsible. In addition we have physicians and dentists who over-prescribed opioids and/or inappropriately prescribed them, rather than taking the time and having the conversations required to do more appropriate pain management. We also have a public that is vulnerable to advertising messages and may have a poor understanding about both acute and chronic pain management, including what can and cannot be accomplished with drugs and what the risks/benefits are of those drugs. This is a public health crisis that requires comprehensive public health-style interventions. Suing the pharmaceutical companies is one way to fund the public health approach that we need. It might be more effective for Attorney General Schneiderman to take this up rather than relying on individual counties to do it. If I recall the tobacco settlement was taken up by almost all the AGs from across the country. AG Schneiderman has already gotten involved w/medication assisted therapy, mental health parity, and encouraging competition/generics for suboxone in the name of fighting the opioid crisis. It seems that this is a candidate for the AG’s involvement as well.
— Katie Orem, MPH
It is multifaceted. Pharmacies participate, doctors participate, dealers participate and mental health help is cut by government and we the public stay silent.
— Suzanne Mayer
Opioids are a valuable tool for doctors to help relieve chronic pain in many patients. I don’t see how misuse is the pharmaceutical industry’s problem. This is just the type of populist legislation pushed by politicians trying to look as though something is being done.
— Mark Wilson
As far as I can tell, the pharmaceutical companies are not somehow pushing the painkillers any more than they are “pushing” any other drug they make. The doctors prescribe the painkillers so I suppose you could hold them to some level of blame if they don’t properly instruct a patient on the risks of painkiller use. The final responsibility lies with the patient if they don’t follow the doctor’s instructions. Holding the pharmaceutical companies liable for the patient’s actions is similar to the tobacco industry liable for smoking related illnesses. The cigarette packaging has said for many years before the 1990’s that using tobacco products can cause cancer. The smokers knew they were taking a risk.
— Dave Fister
Pharma companies are in business to make money by selling drugs. They produce research to put their drugs in the best light, maximizing the plusses while minimizing the negatives. There has been a generation of opioid use with little check on the main negative associated with them…their addictive properties. Such properties coupled with the pervasive notion that addiction only happens to the weak has led to the problem we face today. The other issue today is that opioids are being made illegally further fueling the problem. I am not sure lawsuits are the answer, but correcting the problem by dialing back their use is necessary.
— Sue O’Brien, PT PhD
We live in culture of self-medication, any pain/discomfort needs be relieved ASAP and so many take little responsibility for their action. Blaming the companies that provide these drugs is letting the doctors and users off the hook too easily.
— Daniel Herpst, Rochester
I think the pharmaceutical companies are contributors but only a part of the problem. In some cases I’m sure people had no idea they could become addicted. More often, I fear people use opioids for escape initially, and then become addicted. We have big problems with underemployment, poverty and despair in many parts of our country. We need to focus on the issues underlying their losses and problems along with enlisting the understanding and cooperation of the pharmaceutical companies. There are no simple answers.
— Emily Neece