America is awash in opioids. In Ohio, the crisis has reached epidemic proportions: More than 4,100 died last year from unintentionally overdosing -- in parks, libraries, cars, homes, theaters, restaurants. And still, the toll is soaring. Coroners are running out of morgue space. Families have been devastated. Ohio's child-welfare agencies, courts, hospitals, prisons and Medicaid system are overwhelmed.
Ohioans have to wonder how the opioid epidemic grabbed a foothold, exploded and wrought such devastation. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine says he has the answer: It was a calculated marketing plan by major drugmakers to reap billions in profits while misinforming physicians as to the dangers of prescribing opioids. Drugmakers did this partly by funding "expert" pain-management associations that were a front for Big Pharma marketing campaigns.
Last week, DeWine sued five leading prescription opioid manufacturers and their subsidiaries. He's still considering suing distributors, but started with manufacturers, against which he believes he has the strongest evidence for a winnable case. If proven, his 103-page lawsuit is a damning indictment of drug companies that sold common drugs such as OxyContin, Dilaudid and Percocet.
"We conclude (these companies) spent millions of dollars to deceptively market their drugs, leading to our state's worst public health crisis," DeWine said. "... these companies got thousands and thousands of Ohioans -- our friends, our family members, our co-workers, our kids -- addicted to opioid pain medications."
DeWine argues that drug manufacturers by the 1990s had begun a deceptive marketing scheme designed to persuade physicians and patients that opioids could be used for chronic pain, rather than acute pain such as end-of-life cancers.
When their legal prescriptions ran out, desperate addicts turned to cheap heroin and other street drugs. Consider these startling numbers from 2016: 2.3 million Ohioans were prescribed opioids, or nearly 1 in 5 Ohioans; Ohio had 200,000 opioid addicts, about the population of Akron; and in central Ohio alone, the number of oxycodone painkillers prescribed equaled 123 pills for every man, woman and child.
No wonder Ohio was hard hit. In 2014 and 2015, Ohio accounted for 1 in every 9 overdose deaths in the U.S.
DeWine's lawsuit isn't a fix: We must continue to battle addiction through treatment, drug-abuse education and by pursuing drug dealers. But DeWine's suit aims to exact compensation from those he believes knowingly got people addicted for profit, sticking taxpayers with huge costs. A number of other states and cities also have sued the drug companies, resulting in settlements.
Assuming that the drug companies behaved as DeWine outlines in his lawsuit, the case against Big Pharma could mirror the 1998 settlement between Big Tobacco and attorneys generals of 46 states, including Ohio. The manufacturers agreed to pay a minimum of $206 billion to compensate for public health costs as a result of alleged deceptive and fraudulent practices.
In his lawsuit against the drugmakers, DeWine alleges a pattern and practice of nefarious conduct, including "leading doctors to believe the opioids were not addictive, that addiction was an easy thing to overcome, or that addiction could actually be treated by taking even more opioids!"
If opioid drugmakers trivialized the risks of addiction, seducing physicians and patients with misinformation, DeWine is right to hold them accountable. Pharmaceutical companies produce many drugs that save lives and alleviate suffering, but they have a duty to warn of dangerous effects and not engage in scams that ravage lives and communities.