WASHINGTON, D.C. – In case you missed it, U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) penned an op-ed for Cleveland.com, where they urged public officials not to repeat the same tobacco settlement mistakes with opioid lawsuits. The Senator’s op-ed comes as many states, counties, cities and victims are suing opioid manufacturers, distributors and retailers for their role in contributing to the addiction crisis, including 1,600 lawsuits that have been consolidated into one federal case in Cleveland. Should these litigations lead to large monetary settlements, Brown and Durbin are calling for funds from the settlements to be dedicated to combating opioid abuse and preventing the next wave of addiction.
You can read the Senators’ piece here and below:
Let’s not repeat tobacco settlement mistakes with opioid lawsuits
By U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Dick Durbin (D-IL)
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As residents of Ohio know too well, the United States is facing a drug overdose crisis. In 2017, more than 70,000 people nationwide died from drug overdoses, the vast majority due to prescription opioids, heroin, and fentanyl – more American deaths than the total military casualties in the Vietnam and Iraq wars combined.
Congress has increased funding and passed important legislation to provide the right tools to confront this burden, but a comprehensive response demands action from all parties — especially those who ignited this crisis. That’s why a major legal challenge has been brought to hold the pharmaceutical industry accountable and direct them to contribute to the solution. The case will be heard in Cleveland, but it will have implications around the country.
While there are many factors that caused this crisis, we cannot ignore the enormous volume of prescription opioids manufactured each year for the past two decades, and the aggressive marketing and promotion efforts to fill prescription pads.
In 2017, 13 billion opioid doses were put on the market — enough for every adult American to have a three-week prescription of painkillers. This heightens the risk for illicit diversion and abuse, as four in five new heroin users first began their addiction with prescription painkillers.
This reminds us of a public health scourge we confronted in the 20th century, and provides a lesson that should guide our efforts to heal.
For decades, Americans suffered the consequences of misleading industry promotion, deceptive information about health risks, and millions of attributable deaths from another legal product: cigarettes.
It took the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement (MSA) to finally hold the major manufacturers of tobacco responsible for their actions that hooked youth and adults to a lifetime of nicotine addiction and carcinogen exposure. The settlement among attorneys general from 46 states, Washington, D.C., and five U.S. territories with Philip Morris, R.J. Reynolds, Brown & Williamson, and Lorillard was estimated would provide states with $246 billion over the first 25 years.
But despite the pressing public health need, and $8.2 billion that states collected in 2018, only a tiny fraction of the MSA money — a meager eight percent — is actually being steered to tobacco prevention and cessation activities.
According to The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, 20 years into the tobacco MSA, more than $145 billion of the settlement money has instead gone to other state general revenue activities – even to build stadiums and support tobacco-processing operations.
Money that should have been spent to help address the scourge of nicotine addiction and death has instead been used to fill budget gaps and carry out pet projects.
The tragic burden of our nation’s opioid crisis demands that we learn from this missed opportunity, and direct any money from a potential opioid settlement to public health efforts to fight addiction.
On March 26, opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma reached a $270 million settlement with the state of Oklahoma regarding Purdue’s role in contributing to opioid addiction, overdoses, and deaths.
Many other states, counties, cities, and victims have also sued opioid manufacturers, distributors, and retailers, including 1,600 lawsuits that have been consolidated into one federal case in Cleveland.
Should these litigation efforts result in large monetary settlements, we believe it is essential to apply lessons learned from the tobacco settlement.
Any potential opioid settlement should dedicate funds to legitimate public health efforts in order to build the framework our nation needs to respond to the current opioid abuse crisis and prevent the next wave of drug addiction. Rather than be diverted to unrelated projects, funds should be devoted to increasing residential and community-based treatment and recovery services; expanding mental health counseling and medication-assisted treatment; development of the behavioral health workforce through the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration; and naloxone distribution and harm reduction efforts.
Further, any such settlement funding should be used to address and prevent early life trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences which often are at the root of addiction; improve education, training, and awareness efforts for the public, law enforcement, and health professionals; and invest in supportive housing, mental health treatment, and other structural societal problems that are inextricably linked to our nation’s drug crisis.
The diversion of yesterday’s tobacco settlement funds to purposes totally unrelated to public health should be a cautionary tale. If the industries that fueled this crisis are held to account for the damage they have caused, their restitution should be devoted to helping our nation heal.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois is the Democratic Whip of the Senate. Fellow Democrat U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Cleveland is the senior senator from Ohio and ranking member on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.