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Reactions to the U.S. Opioid Epidemic

The U.S. is in the grip of an intensifying opioid addiction and overdose crisis. Since the late 1990s, there has been a rapid increase in the use of prescription and non-prescription opioid drugs in the U.S. Opioids, such as methadone and oxycodone, are synthetic painkiller drugs that are manufactured to work in a way similar to opiate drugs, such as morphine and heroin, which are derived from the opium plant.

Despite opioids’ high risk of addiction and overdose, their potency and availability make them popular both as recreational drugs and as formal medical treatments. In fact, the National Institutes of Health estimates that the number of opioid prescriptions written in the U.S. each year, approximately 320 million, is roughly equal to the country’s population.

Drug overdose is now the leading cause of death among Americans under the age of 50. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”), over 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016, about 20% more than in 2015. Two-thirds (i.e., more than 42,000) of those deaths are from opioid overdoses. Furthermore, CDC reported the overall life expectancy of Americans in 2016 decreased for the second consecutive year, falling to 78.6 years. Opioid-related deaths continued to climb in 2017, which could contribute to a third consecutive year of declining life expectancy. This sobering trend is resulting in action by the federal government.

On October 26, 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a “public health emergency.” In doing so, President Trump allowed for some federal funds to be redirected to the crisis, with specific amounts to be determined by Congress.

On November 29, 2017, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that the U.S. Department of Justice was awarding $12 million through its Anti-Methamphetamine and Anti-Heroin Task Force Programs to law enforcement agencies in states hit hard by illegal prescription opioid, heroin, and methamphetamine activity. Attorney General Sessions also instructed every U.S. Attorney to designate an Opioid Coordinator, who is responsible for, inter alia, advising and training Assistant U.S. Attorneys on prosecuting opioid offenses, maintaining statistics on opioid prosecutions, and developing and evaluating strategies to combat the opioid epidemic. These initiatives aimed at addressing the opioid epidemic will likely result in more criminal, civil, and administrative actions.

Importantly, governments across the country are filing waves of civil cases in federal and state courts against pharmaceutical companies, aiming to hold drug manufacturers and distributors responsible for the nation’s rising opioid epidemic. For example, in December of 2017, Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry, and Will counties in Illinois filed lawsuits against some of the nation’s largest pharmaceutical companies, including Abbott Laboratories, Cephalon, Endo Health Solutions, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson, Purdue Pharma, and Teva Pharmaceuticals USA. Additionally, on January 2, 2018, officials from the City of Rockford and Winnebago County in Illinois announced that they intend to join the growing nationwide effort to pursue legal action against drug manufacturers and distributors.

In these lawsuits, the municipalities allege that taxpayer resources are being used to respond to the opioid epidemic, and that pharmaceutical companies should bear the responsibility to help with those costs. These government officials also allege that excessive prescribing to patients was illegal and that these drug companies ignored measures to prevent overprescribing. Specifically, Cook County contends in its lawsuit that unlawful marketing by drug manufacturers has led to an opioid crisis amongst Cook County residents.

Many drug manufacturers and distributors have settled similar lawsuits to avoid negative press, excessive litigation costs, and potentially crippling judgments. For example, a lawsuit filed by the U.S. against Purdue Pharma for misbranding OxyContin was settled in 2007 for $635 million. Another key settlement emerged in August of 2017, when Arizona drug company Insys agreed to pay the State of Illinois to settle allegations of deceptively marketing and selling a prescription opioid drug for uses that had not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. As a result, these settlements and ongoing government actions may affect civil litigation going forward by opening the door to lawsuits brought by injured private citizens against pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors.