In early September, Purdue Pharma tentatively settled lawsuits with thousands of municipal governments and almost two dozen states. Purdue, the plaintiffs argued, had deceptively marketed Oxycontin, an addictive opioid, fueling a nationwide epidemic of dependency and overdose. The agreement stipulated that the company would file for bankruptcy, then create a public trust and pay plaintiffs with its profits. They would also donate addiction-treatment and overdose-reversal drugs to afflicted counties. Finally, the Sackler family, owners of Purdue, would pay out $3 billion of their personal fortune over seven years.
Jurisdictions around the country, from cities to Native American tribes like the Cherokee Nation, are attempting to hold pharmaceutical companies, drug distributors, and pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens accountable for their role in America’s “opioid crisis.” Of the 70,000 overdose deaths in 2017, close to 70 percent involved opioid drugs. And though most of these deaths were caused by illegal opioids, the connection to the medicine cabinet is apparent: nearly 80 percent of heroin users used prescription drugs (nonmedically) first.
In August, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $572 million to the state of Oklahoma; Purdue paid out $270 million to the state earlier in 2019. In October, four companies tentatively settled with Ohio, which, in 2017, had the second-highest number of opioid-overdose deaths in the United States.
Across all these cases, the allegations are consistent. Drug manufacturers aggressively sold their drugs, now-household names like Percocet and Vicodin, and encouraged doctors to overprescribe them: to patients with chronic back pain, to kids after wisdom-teeth surgeries who could have just taken ibuprofen.