In a desperate attempt to fill their empty coffers and convince voters they are doing something — anything — to stop the current opioid abuse epidemic, hundreds of cities, counties, Native American tribes and hospitals are suing pharmaceutical companies for their role in the opioid abuse crisis.  In addition, 41 state attorneys general are conducting an investigation into the business practices of opioid manufacturers and distributors. 

The litigation, which a recent article in Politico describes as “staggering in scope”, is modeled after similar lawsuits filed against tobacco companies some 20-years ago.  Former Mississippi Attorney General Mike Moore helped lead the nationwide effort against “Big Tobacco” and is now representing several states in opioid lawsuits against the latest boogeyman, “Big Pharma.”

The playbook is well-known.  As attorney Margaret Little has written,

Veterans of the tobacco wars will recognize the inflammatory fuel of public outrage at play.   A public health epidemic is identified, the deep pocket that manufactures the legal product is targeted for the social costs irrespective of the law or evidence that would hold up in court, state and local politicians enter into alliances brokered by law firms that stand to earn millions, if not billions, from the rush to suit and settlement, and those governments pocket huge streams of money relieving them from budget crises and the need to address decades of government bloat.

But an article published in The Atlantic in 2017 describes the litigation against the pharmaceutical companies as a long shot, primarily because painkillers (unlike tobacco) have a medically approved use:

People who die of overdoses are often using the pills not as they were prescribed, but are obtaining the pills on the black market. They are disregarding doctors’ prescriptions and taking more than is safe. [Unlike users of tobacco, opioid users] are not using the p[roduct] as directed, and so it is harder to blame the pharmaceutical companies for the effects of that misuse.

Even should they succeed, it is unlikely that these lawsuits will do anything to curb the opioid abuse problem.  As the Politico article notes, with more than 1,100 lawyers representing the parties, any settlement will be diluted by paying out legal fees to scores of attorneys before ever reaching the government. And what money does find its way into government coffers is likely to be used not for public health efforts, but rather to close current budget deficits.  This is precisely what happened with the tobacco settlements, in which only a tiny fraction of the billions of dollars that tobacco companies paid to state governments was spent on prevention.   

In March, CNBC reported President Donald Trump’s suggestion that the federal government might join efforts to sue drug companies and distributors.

It shouldn’t because, as Margaret Little notes, it is the public that ultimately pays the price in the form of “vastly higher pharmaceutical prices, which can only have a deleterious effect on already out of control health care costs and a struggling economy.”

As Little concludes:

The end game of all such suits, known as regulation by litigation, is that punitive, regressive taxes are levied in stealth without representation, by lawyers in exchange for an exorbitant share of the proceeds.  Such regulation by litigation is an abuse of the abuse of the rule of law, taxation without representation and an evasion of democratic accountability.