Will Opioid Litigation Be the Next Tobacco Litigation?

The state of Mississippi has joined the city of Chicago, the state of Ohio and counties in California and New York, filing a lawsuit against manufacturers of opioid pharmaceutical products, contending that drug manufacturers intentionally and systematically deceived the public as to known health risks, and simultaneously overstated their benefits.

According to statistics gathered by attorneys for the plaintiffs, nearly 20,000 people died in the United States in 2014 as a result of opioid overdoses. They say there is an epidemic of addiction tied to such drugs as OxyContin, Opana,Percodan, Vicodin and Percocet, which they say act much like heroin (also an opioid). According to the lawsuit filed in Hinds County, Mississippi, pharmaceutical companies have spent millions of dollars to convince doctors, researchers and legislators—at both the state and federal levels—that millions of people suffer from chronic pain, which they say can be effectively treated by a variety of opioids. They further allege that medical science has long held a contrary point of view, understanding the addictive and debilitating effects of opioids.

Some attorneys worry that, because opioids have been subject to FDA regulation—unlike tobacco—it will be far more difficult to get a jury to agree that drug manufacturers behaved improperly. The Mississippi lawsuit, however, contends that drug manufactures engaged in intentional and well-orchestrated efforts to mislead the FDA, providing false information that indicated that opioids were less dangerous or addictive than more reliable studies showed they were. According to one report, published by the Center for Public Integrity, opioid manufacturers spent nearly $900 million to lobby state and federal legislators over the past ten years, while organizations supporting more regulation of opioids spent approximately $4 million.

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