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Annie Baker | University of Kentucky

On September 9th, the City of Lexington, KY filed a federal lawsuit against manufacturers and distributors of opioid drugs, seeking monetary compensation for its efforts to fight the painkiller epidemic. Despite the city investing over a million dollars a year in drug education, needle exchanges, and other programs, in addition to the work of many independent groups—the death toll from overdoses continues to climb. Lexington-Fayette County is far from the first place in the state to sue drug manufacturers—the 35th out of the state’s 120 counties.

               Kentucky’s attorney general, Andy Beshear, made news in late September for hiring three national law firms, including the Florida-based Morgan and Morgan, and one in-state firm to investigate several drug manufacturers with the potential of suing. Since then he’s encountered opposition from other Kentucky politicians. On November 6th, he filed a lawsuit in Kentucky state court against Endo Pharmaceuticals, suing them for fraud and deception in their marketing of their (now, off the market) opioid painkiller, Opana ER.

Actions like these haven’t been exclusive to Kentucky, but are part of a nation-wide movement. Counties, states, cities, and the Cherokee Nation have already also gone after the pharmaceutical industry. As far back as January, the city of Everett, Washington sued Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, claiming they allowed its marketing to “dubious” doctors and even black market distribution. Purdue has faced legal trouble in the past. In 2007, they paid $600 million in criminal and civil fines over “misbranding” of OxyContin. Since then, they have appeared to have been trying to make their product’s addictiveness known.

The case the various groups present can be boiled down to this: the manufacturers created drugs that turned out to be highly addictive. Even with mounting evidence to the drugs’ addictiveness, the marketers did not sufficiently convey this risk to the public. Eventually, there was legal trouble, which led to more stringent warnings. Despite this action, even coupled with drug education and other programs paid for by the plaintiffs, overdose deaths have increased. Other channels, they say, have to have been employed, and thus enters the city of Everett’s claim of Purdue encouraging the black market and quack doctors. As the opioid epidemic worsens, these groups have to pay more and more money to both try to slow the progress of that epidemic through education and to save the lives of and care for its current victims. If their case is right, then the pharmaceutical companies and their marketers are responsible for the great monetary losses

Comparisons have been made between this multitude of lawsuits over painkillers and those in the ‘90s against tobacco companies. What muddies the waters here, is that tobacco has no good side effects whereas opioid painkillers make normal life possible for many Americans with chronic pain. Despite the industry’s many flaws and the incredibly compelling cases presented across the nation, we cannot demonize the industry. If it’s an evil, it’s currently necessary one and we must learn how to control it.

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