Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley is taking an important and necessary step in the ongoing effort to address the opioid drug crisis in the state.
Hawley sued three pharmaceutical companies in state court Wednesday in St. Louis, alleging the firms contributed to the overuse of pain-killing medicines such as OxyContin and Percocet.
The companies — Purdue Pharma, Endo Pharmaceuticals and Janssen Pharmaceuticals — knew the painkillers were addictive and potentially dangerous, the lawsuit says, but promoted them to doctors and patients anyway.
“This opioid epidemic is the direct result of a carefully crafted campaign of deception carried out by Defendants,” the lawsuit alleges. “For years, Defendants fraudulently misrepresented the risks posed by the drugs that they manufacture and sell, misleading both doctors and consumers.”
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Hawley wants unspecified damages from the companies.
Lawsuits are only allegations. Missourians will want to hear the evidence before reaching a conclusion about the companies’ culpability for the ongoing use of opioid drugs, which have ravaged the state and nation, causing thousands of deaths and costing billions of dollars.
In a statement, Purdue said it “vigorously” denies the allegations in the complaint, but “we share the attorney general’s concern about the opioid crisis.” A Janssen statement said the firm “acted appropriately, responsibly and in the best interests of patients.”
Endo said it would not comment on pending litigation.
We applaud Hawley’s action. A trial could shed light on the roots of the crisis and perhaps bolster efforts to reduce the drugs’ impact on vulnerable patients.
Hawley’s case resembles state-based lawsuits filed against tobacco companies in the 1990s — legal action that led to multibillion-dollar reimbursements for states, higher taxes on tobacco products and at least some reduction in smoking, a result that has saved lives.
There are differences between the two products. Unlike tobacco, opioids can play a legitimate role in relieving acute pain. It would be wrong for Missouri or any state to seek an outright ban on such drugs, either through public pressure or as part of any lawsuit.
At the same time, no one can doubt the harm opioid overuse and misuse have caused. In 2015, roughly 500 people died in Missouri as the result of non-heroin opioid use. More than 24,000 Missourians go to the hospital each year to treat opioid-related maladies.
Tuesday, the government said nearly 1.3 million Americans sought emergency room help for opioid misuse in 2014, twice as many as in 2005.
Hawley’s lawsuit does not relieve Missouri from its own obligations to fight opioid abuse. Missouri remains the only state in the nation without a prescription drug monitoring program, an oversight the legislature must correct. The attorney general can’t ask a court to do what a state won’t do for itself.
But using the tools of the courtroom to hold drugmakers accountable is an important and valid effort. Hawley promises the legal work will stay in-house, reducing the cost to taxpayers.
Missourians will want to watch the progress of this case carefully. It will take a multifaceted approach to solve the opioid crisis, and Missouri’s lawsuit is a welcome step in the right direction.