So far in the opioid epidemic, as with the rest of the drug war, law enforcement has been quick to hand out punishments to average dealers and users, disproportionately affecting people of color. But now some legal punishment may finally be coming for the big suppliers.
On Tuesday, South Carolina’s attorney general filed suit against Purdue Pharma alleging the company “unfairly and deceptively marketed opioids, which helped create and fuel South Carolina’s opioid epidemic.” The attorney general’s action follows several other states and local jurisdictions who have also filed suit in regards to Purdue’s role in the opioid crisis.
The suit alleges Purdue Pharma, which manufactures OxyContin and other opioids, created “a public nuisance” by violating the state’s Unfair Trade Practices Act under a 2007 consent judgement. The attorney general maintains that “Purdue significantly downplayed how addictive its opioids are and also overstated the benefits of opioids compared to other forms of pain management in order to increase its market share and profits.”
Although it’s unclear at this time what punishment the company might receive should the courts rule in the states’ favor, the suits do represent a newfound willingness for public officials to target the true roots of the opioid epidemic. By alleging Purdue misled doctors and the public about the addictiveness of their products, officials are finally connecting the dots and calling for legal repercussions for the main perpetrators of the overall epidemic.
For its part, Purdue has denied the allegations and told Bloomberg they are an “industry leader in the development of abuse-deterrent technology, advocating for the use of prescription drug monitoring programs and supporting access to Naloxone.” They also have a section of their website dedicated to their “corporate responsibility” when it comes to opioids.
This is not the first wave of suits targeting Purdue Pharma. In 2015, the company settled a lawsuit with Kentucky, paying out $24 million in settlement cash for once again misleading people about the addictiveness of OxyContin.
In 2007, following a U.S. Department of Justice investigation, Purdue executives pleaded guilty to misbranding OxyContin, paying a settlement of over $630 million. In both of those instances, big cash payouts were enough to keep the pill mills churning, adding to an opioid market in which an estimated 300 million prescriptions for painkillers were written in the U.S. in 2015.
Whether any true punishments or criminal charges come from the latest round of lawsuits remains to be seen. But no matter what happens to Purdue and its top executives, seeing the makers of millions of opioids brought to justice would likely bring little solace to the thousands of people already behind bars for selling a mere handful of pills.