Opioid overdoses on track to kill more Americans than in Vietnam War

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley sued three top U.S. opioid drugmakers for consumer fraud

Associated Press

ST. LOUIS — Opioid addiction is driving predictions that more Americans will die this year from drug overdoses than the more than 58,000 who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. Something has to change. Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley's lawsuit against three top U.S. opioid manufacturers is a welcome counterpunch against this national public health crisis.

Hawley sued the drugmakers for consumer fraud, alleging they waged a multiyear effort to hide the dangers of prescription pain pills and to deceive doctors and patients by not disclosing the high potential for addiction. He said they used front organizations that pushed false research and aimed "very sophisticated, very expensive" campaigns at doctors downplaying the addiction potential and extolling supposed health benefits.

It's not surprising that drug manufacturers, eyeing billions of dollars a year from opioid sales, would find devious ways to maximize profits off higher addiction rates. One of the companies in the suit, Purdue Pharma, paid more than $600 million in fines and other payments 10 years ago in a federal lawsuit and admitted to fraudulently marketing OxyContin for six years. And that was before drug overdoses reached epidemic proportions.

Today's numbers are staggering. After a 100-year decline in U.S. mortality statistics, opioids are making death rates rise again. Drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, and only 10 percent of people with opioid-addiction problems get treatment. A New York Times investigation this month said that between 59,000 and 65,000 people died of overdoses last year, compared to nearly 55,000 deaths from car crashes at the peak of such deaths in 1972 and more than 43,000 from HIV/AIDS at the height of that epidemic in 1995.

Hawley did not specify the amount of money sought in Missouri's lawsuit but said it is hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and civil penalties. The Republican attorney general is right to go after manufacturers to stop the flow of opioids into Missouri, particularly since the state Legislature has failed repeatedly to pass a Prescription Drug Monitoring Program. Missouri is the only state without such a program to help physicians identify signs of opioid abuse and prevent doctor-shopping by people seeking to circumvent prescription limits.

Hawley told us that his plan also entails using money that may result from the lawsuit for addict rehabilitation and to fight addiction through public awareness and jobs programs.

"Confronting this epidemic will take a multipronged approach," he said. "This is the beginning. It is not the end."

Part of the nation's reluctance in fighting addiction has been the insistence on treating it as a criminal justice problem rather than a public health crisis. Hawley's lawsuit seeks to put the blame where it belongs: on drug companies that preyed on consumers with apparent disregard for the deadly addiction crisis that would follow.

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