Attention to the nation’s long-running opioid crisis has had benefits. Data show the rate of opioid prescriptions has declined, along with the number of deaths from opioid abuse.
But that does not mean it is time to declare victory in the battle against an insidious epidemic that has ravaged communities. Opioid abuse, fueled in part by unscrupulous conduct from pharmaceutical companies, continues to exact a toll on citizens and governments. Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is right to continue leading the fight to protect communities and to bring an end to the scourge.
Last week, Ferguson announced a new lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson and a subsidiary, extending his role as a national leader in holding pharmaceutical companies accountable. The complaint asks the company to pay the state the amount of money it has made from selling opioids in Washington. That amount is unknown and would be revealed during the discovery process; Ferguson said he is confident it is in the millions. Any proceeds garnered by the state would be put toward opioid addiction prevention and treatment programs.
In support of the lawsuit, Ferguson noted that from 2006 to 2017, 8,000 people in Washington died from opioid overdoses; countless other lives have been irrevocably altered by addiction.
The crisis raises questions about personal responsibility and corporate liability. Many people use opioids without becoming addicted and find them necessary for pain management. Those who abuse medication or use illegally obtained prescription drugs should not be absolved for risky personal choices. Likewise, the pharmaceutical companies that endanger public health in a quest for profits must not be ignored.
According to the attorney general’s office: “Johnson & Johnson deceptively marketed the long-term use of opioids at high doses without documented evidence of their effectiveness, ignoring the well-documented risks of the drugs. … Johnson & Johnson marketed its opioid drugs for chronic pain conditions like headaches, low back pain and fibromyalgia, despite evidence that opioids were not effective at treating these conditions.”
If a pharmaceutical company is misleading doctors about its products and doctors share those falsehoods with patients, the corporation bears some responsibility. As Ferguson said: “Opioids have torn apart Washington families, overburdened our health care system and caused an epidemic of addiction we are struggling to contain. Johnson & Johnson must be held responsible for the damage it caused.”
The latest lawsuit continues Ferguson’s work against the opioid crisis. In 2017, he filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma — a suit superseded by the company filing for bankruptcy. In 2019, he filed suit against three distributors of prescription opioids; a trial is scheduled for October.
Those lawsuits — along with dozens in other states — have combined with extensive media coverage to raise awareness. According to the Washington Department of Health, opioids were prescribed for 89 out of every 1,000 patients in the state in 2012; by 2019, that had dropped to 60 patients per 1,000. Numbers for Clark County have largely mirrored statewide statistics. Meanwhile, deaths from opioid abuse declined nationwide in 2018.
The goals must be to ensure that opioids are properly prescribed for patients who need them and to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable when they lie about their products. Ferguson’s latest action to protect Washington consumers is a welcome development.