Articles, Blog

Will drug companies be held accountable for America’s opioid epidemic?

December 28, 2019


AMNA NAWAZ: It was declared a public health
emergency in 2017, and received new funding as part of an October law. But the nation’s opioid crisis remains a slow-moving
disaster, responsible for some 40,000 overdose deaths in America last year. As William Brangham reports, this year could
see the culmination of a flood of lawsuits, all seeking accountability for the epidemic
and trying to secure more money to treat its victims. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: There are dozens and dozens
of lawsuits right now accusing opioid manufacturers, distributors and retailers of failing to do
enough to stop the flow of these drugs into U.S. communities. These lawsuits, which are largely brought
by states and cities impacted by the crisis, allege that many of these actors could have
done more and acted sooner to stop the addiction and deaths of so many Americans. Barry Meier covered this epidemic for 17 years
for The New York Times. He wrote a book about Purdue Pharma, the company
behind the billion-dollar opioid OxyContin. It’s called “Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit
and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic.” And he joins me now from New York. Barry Meier, recently in a New York Times
editorial, you argued that you’re concerned that many of these cities and states might
settle these lawsuits and that, in settling, the public will get shortchanged. What do you mean by that? BARRY MEIER, Author, “Pain Killer: An Empire
of Deceit and the Origin of America’s Opioid Epidemic”: Well, William, this isn’t an ordinary
situation. It’s an extraordinary situation. Every year, tens of thousands of people die
from these drugs in overdoses, and that’s the result of their overuse, their misuse,
their overdistribution and overpromotion. And, you know, we can’t deal with this as
an ordinary, you know, lawsuit, where money is transferred from companies to cities or
from companies to plaintiffs’ lawyers. At this juncture, we have to know the truth. Why did these companies act in this way? What did they know? Who are the decision-makers? Why did they decide to flood this country
with millions and millions of pain pills? WILLIAM BRANGHAM: One of the pieces of evidence
that I know you hold very strongly in this case is, there’s 120-page DOJ document that
you were leaked. And this was about a case that was being brought
against Purdue Pharma. And the DOJ prosecutors in that case felt
that they had enough evidence to prosecute, I think it was at least three highly-ranked
Purdue executives. Can you remind us what the evidence showed
in that case? BARRY MEIER: What the prosecutors alleged
was that these three top executives knew almost immediately after OxyContin appeared in the
market, which was 1996, that it was being diverted to the street, that it was a drug
of abuse, and that they had gotten consistent reports, reports that the prosecutors believe
should have been the basis for a public alert, a public warning. And it’s quite possible that, had the company
made those — that alert in time, a lot of the havoc that we see today wouldn’t have
occurred. More importantly, had this evidence been made
public during a trial of these expensive, the practices of doctors may have changed,
the position of public regulators regarding the — OxyContin and other drugs may have
stiffened. I mean, it’s a stunning statistic, but in
the five years at the Justice Department decided to settle this case, more than 80,000 Americans
died of overdoses involving prescription painkillers, including OxyContin. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: You also argued that another
settlement in 2001 against Purdue by the state of Florida had a similar effect of hiding
relevant information that would have helped change the course of this epidemic. BARRY MEIER: Absolutely. I mean, all along the way, you had situations
where either public officials or plaintiffs’ lawyers, had they been aggressive, had they
gotten the documents that were inside Purdue, could have brought information to light that
would have changed medical practice, would have changed the attitudes of patients, would
have changed the attitudes of regulators. But, time after time after time, they balked,
they settled, either for political reasons, for financial expediency. And so this ball just kept rolling and rolling. It’s not that we’re discovering anything new
now. It’s that we’re only discovering what had
been hidden for 15 years. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But, as you well know — and
you pointed this out in your editorial — there are communities all over this country — I
know you and I both have been to many of them — that are desperate for money, desperate
for money to train new addiction specialists, desperate for more money to buy Narcan, desperate
to open more treatment beds. And settlement money now could possibly mean
saving lives now. And so you understand the tension there, that
they might want to settle, a state might want to settle, because they need this money to
treat people today. BARRY MEIER: I totally understand. And I totally understand that it’s a difficult
decision. Nonetheless, I believe a lot of that money
can come from public coffers. There’s really no reason why the people who
created this crisis are going to profit from selling drugs to cure the crisis. I mean, I, as a taxpayer, would prefer seeing
my money going to those purposes than many of the other purposes that it’s currently
being used for. I think that, eventually, the cities and states
will get the money from industry, but these cases shouldn’t be settled absent a total
and complete disclosure of the internal documents of this — of these companies. There is a history here, and we cannot allow
that history to be buried. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Let’s say that we do get
a better accounting of what all of these companies’ role, if any, played in this crisis. Do you think that that’s important just for
this current crisis? Or do you think that this is part of about
sending a message for the — for the next crisis and on down the road? BARRY MEIER: I think it’s absolutely important
for the future. I think that we are in a situation where the
history of this epidemic will inform how drugs are approved in the future, how they’re regulated
in the future, the actions of corporations in the future. You cannot have corporate executives going
home to their comfortable lives, knowing that millions of pain pills are being shipped to
areas like West Virginia, where abuse is ramping, without there being some eventual accounting
for their activities. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Barry Meier, thank you very
much for your time. BARRY MEIER: Thanks, William.

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