We need a Master Settlement Agreement for opioids

Johnson City Press • May 11, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Using similar practices of neglect and deception coined by tobacco companies in their heyday, pharmaceutical companies that make and market opioids have racked up a body count and addiction rates that, while not as deadly as tobacco use, affect the health of our community just as deeply.

Of the 47,600 people in the U.S. who fatally overdosed on prescription and illicit opioids in 2017, 1,269 of them were Tennesseans. The domestic death toll linked to widespread opioid abuse has grown to more than 200,000 since 1999.

While legislators, law enforcement agencies and health professionals nationwide struggle to treat the symptoms of drug abuse devastating our society, the cause of the infection has been left relatively untouched.

As reports mounted showing widespread abuse and addiction rates of the prescription painkillers originally marketed by drug manufacturers as impossible to abuse, top company executives downplayed the public health risks and doubled down on intense direct-to-physician marketing campaigns.

A study published by researchers at the Boston Medical Center earlier this year found a strong correlation between the amount of money spent by drug companies marketing opioids to doctors, the number of opioids those doctors prescribed and the deaths in those locations caused by prescription opioid overdoses.

When the evidence grew too great for these companies to deny, efforts to re-cap the seemingly bottomless pill bottle and reduce overprescribing gave way to a rise in abuse of illicit opioids like heroin and fentanyl.

While users died and families were shredded, pharmaceutical companies raked in billions. While HIV and hepatitis infections were transmitted by needle-sharing, well-paid spokesmen blamed addicts. While families and communities paid the costs of treatment, company executives denied responsibility.

Past precedent, however, may provide some solutions to help public institutions ease the burdens of treatment and hold drug companies responsible for misdeeds.

In 1998, faced with civil lawsuits from 46 states, the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories, domestic tobacco companies agreed to the largest settlement in the nation’s history.

Through the Master Settlement Agreement, the companies that had for years marketed their products as safe despite contrasting evidence, agreed to pay billions annually to help with costs of treatment for smoking-related illnesses. They also agreed to restrictions on tobacco product marketing.

Though many say the new revenue from the settlement was not properly applied to efforts to curb tobacco use by the receiving states, the same idea could apply to today’s opioid epidemic.

Hundreds of counties, municipalities and states have already filed suits against opioid manufacturers and marketers seeking damages for skyrocketing abuse rates.

If district attorneys continue their efforts to hold these pharmaceutical companies responsible for the havoc they created, needed addiction treatment programs could be funded and meaningful regulations, like forbidding direct-to-physician marketing, could be enacted.

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