Valid lawsuitaimed at theopioid crisis

New Hanover County has sued opioid manufacturers and distributors, attempting to recover some of the exorbitant costs that the opioid epidemic has imposed. According to one study, the county has what may be the worst opioid addiction problem in the country.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, asks that drug companies pay for past and future costs of dealing with the epidemic. The county wants the manufacturers and distributors to create an “abatement fund” to cover medical care, addiction treatment, law enforcement and caring for children often left homeless by addicted parents.

The county will have plenty of company in the courtroom. The Washington Post reported last summer that at least 25 cities, counties and states have already filed civil suits against drug makers, distributors and some large pharmacy chains. Several state attorneys general have spoken publicly of their frustration with the drug industry, which has failed to deal with the problems its opioid medications have created. “If they’re not going to do it voluntarily, we’re going to drag them to the table and make them,” Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said as his state sued five drug manufacturers.

The New Hanover lawsuit says, “The distributors and manufacturers intentionally and/or unlawfully breached their legal duties under federal and state law to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders of prescription opiates.”

The lawsuit argues that drug makers “aggressively pushed highly addictive opioids, falsely representing to doctors that patients would only rarely succumb to drug addiction.” Extensive marketing campaigns that downplayed the serious dangers of opioids have been widely documented in the past few years. And the country is only beginning to get an accurate picture of the epidemic’s real dimensions. Lawmakers from Washington down to local city councils are seeing that stronger law enforcement isn’t the answer to this national illness that afflicts society at every level — including in many of those lawmakers’ own families. And that alone is changing the nature of our nation’s long-failing “war on drugs.”

Communities are turning to treatment as the best way to control the addiction epidemic. Merely halting the flow of opioids is not enough — and if we have learned anything from our four frustrating decades of a war on drugs, we know that it’s an impossible dream anyway. Addicts are the ultimate consumers driving the immutable law of supply and demand. The only way to stop the flow of drugs into our cities and towns is to get the addicts clean and sober. Few towns are equipped for that challenge.

In Fayetteville, for example, where there are thousands of people struggling with addiction, there are only a few dozen beds in inpatient drug-treatment programs. That’s not unusual. In many rural counties, there are no treatment facilities at all. We all know that we need to exponentially expand our treatment capability, but where will the money come from, especially in this time of restricted budgets?

The answer may be in lawsuits like the one filed by New Hanover County. There’s a model for that approach: the suits filed by many states in the 1990s against the tobacco industry for the enormous health burdens that smoking places on society. That led in 1998 to the $246 billion settlement between 46 states and the five largest tobacco companies. Unfortunately, the money wasn’t entirely well spent and many states — like North Carolina — used far too little of it for smoking-cessation and treatment programs. But perhaps if this growing number of opioid suits leads to a similar settlement, we’ll profit from our tobacco settlement experience and use the money exclusively for treatment, intervention and anti-drug education and advocacy.

New Hanover is taking the right course in filing this suit. We hope other counties — and the state — will join the effort. It may be the only way we can win this war.

— The Fayetteville Observer