Big Opium's fines could approach Big Tobacco's as lawsuits mount

Big Opium's fines could approach Big Tobacco's as lawsuits mount

VicesJune 12, 2018 By Reilly Capps

Like Big Tobacco, the companies that make opioids (we'll call them "Big Opium) may have to pay for the damage their products have caused — and the total may be higher than what the tobacco companies agreed to pay 20 years ago, some $250 billion.

That's the word from experts anyway.

“The impact is so much broader that the end result is probably going to be something that could dwarf Tobacco,” attorney Sommer Luther told Colorado Public Radio.

Is that possible?

As 70,000 Americans die of drug overdoses every year, Big Opium companies are being sued by towns, counties and states across the country. How many communities? More than 400, from small towns to American Indian Nations.

Taxpayers and hospital districts across the country have to carry the direct costs of addiction — ambulances that scoop users up off the ground, the emergency departments that care for them, the rehabs that ween them off, and so on.  

All that's part of the huge total cost to the rest of society: $95 billion a year, by one estimate.

The suits argue the companies knew their products were addictive but lied and said they weren't; that they used deceptive marketing campaigns; that they sold doctors and the public the idea that opioids were mostly harmless; and that they didn't crack down on doctors they must have known were overprescribing.

The parallels with the Big Tobacco lawsuits are striking. The arguments then were similar: tobacco killed, the rest of us paid the costs, the companies knew their product was addictive, and they lied about it. Watch:

In fact, some of the same lawyers who sued Big Tobacco are now going after Big Opium.

Many of these lawsuits will succeed. Several already have, and Big Opium has already coughed up plenty. In 2007, Purdue Pharma, which makes Oxycontin (the M&Ms of opioid painkillers) pled guilty to misleading people about the drug's addiction potential and paid $600 million in fines. A dozen other opioid maker settlements have already racked up hundreds of millions more.

On the other hand, some experts predict Big Opium settlements won't be anywhere near as Big Tobacco's. Because:

- Tobacco has no generally accepted useful purpose.

- If you use tobacco as you're supposed to, you die.

- Opioids, on the other hand, have a useful purpose of painkilling.

- Opioids are always supposed to be given by a doctor, who should monitor and limit the patients' use.

The Big Opium trials could start in 2019. Settlements will certainly be in the billions, money that should be used to help addicts get treatment.