Perhaps it’s time for America’s drug company executives to schedule a long conference call with America’s tobacco company executives to have a little chat about liability.
Big Pharma’s efforts to somehow put a lid on the brewing opioid controversy received a major blow in what was once a pharmaceuticals stronghold: Texas. Several (mostly rural) counties around the Lone Star state have already sued drug makers for not taking proper steps to limit the distribution of opioids within their jurisdictions. But now the topic has heated up.
What’s causing the opioid uproar in Texas is an alignment of supposedly disparate actions. The state attorney general, finally reacting to increasing opioid-related deaths and suits by several counties, jumped in on a national investigation of opioid drug manufacturers.
Meanwhile, other state elected officials began to question a 2016 state grant to a major opioid maker, McKesson, a defendant in several of the state lawsuits. Now, Gov. Greg Abbott (not related to Abbott Labs) is taking flak over his luring McKesson to expand in Texas with a $9.75 million dole-out of taxpayer dollars—a bit of economic development scheming gone horribly wrong, from a political standpoint.
Essentially, the county lawsuits claim McKesson and others failed to take proper steps to control the distribution of opioids in parts of Texas. McKesson claims it did nothing wrong and strongly opposes opioid abuse.
Blaming Big Pharma for drug overdoses, and even suing over it, is nothing new. It’s the heightened fervor with which elected officials are attacking the industry that has some drawing parallels to Big Tobacco’s legal woes in the 1990s.
With 41 states banding together to investigate the drug makers’ culpability in the crisis, legal experts are beginning to see a strategy similar to the one mounted against Big Tobacco in which Texas alone received more than $15 billion as its share of the tobacco companies’ settlement.
In an interview with the Texas Tribune, Mike Papantonio, a Florida-based lawyer with experience in tobacco litigation, suggested drug makers have left themselves wide open to litigation by not taking stronger steps to reduce opioid production and distribution.
“It’s like a polluter externalizing all his risk,” he told the newspaper. “He makes a lot of money because he pours the poison right into the river. The shareholders love it, but then the taxpayers have to come back and fix it.”
Papantonio currently serves as organizer of a legal conference for groups that may sue pharmaceutical companies over opioids, the newspaper said.
The Texas situation is particularly worrisome for pharmaceutical companies because they’ve been well-treated by the state. Now, with the governor under fire for supporting McKesson, the stronghold is collapsing.
And the McKesson grant has state officials calling for industry oversight, never a welcome development.
“There needs to be better oversight here,” said state Rep. Joe Moody (D, El Paso), a member of the new House panel examining the opioid crisis. “You’re in the middle of the opioid crisis, and we’re issuing an enormous grant that comprises a significant amount of grants this company is getting across the country.”