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Lawsuits as public health policy: North Dakota joins list of states suing opioid makers

by Jon Davis ~ June/July 2018 ~ Stateline Midwest »
North Dakota was one of six states to sue an opioid maker in May, alleging in part that it violated state consumer protection laws by falsely denying or downplaying the risk of addiction from opioids while overstating their benefits.
North Dakota’s lawsuit alleges the manufacturer made unsubstantiated claims regarding the benefits of long-term opioids treatment and falsely represented that opioid use improved patients’ function and quality of life; targeted vulnerable patient populations, such as the elderly and veterans; and disguised its role in the deceptive marketing of opioids by working through third-party front groups and key “opinion leaders.”
“As a matter of common sense, drugs that can kill patients or commit them to a life of addiction or recovery do not ‘improve their function and quality of life,’ ” North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said in a press release.
North Dakota’s allegations echo those Ohio levied in a May 2017 lawsuit, which is still in the discovery and pre-trial motions phase, says Dan Tierney, a spokesman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. (In February, Ohio also sued four opioid distributors, alleging they were negligent and “created a public health nuisance” by ignoring responsibilities to provide effective controls against the diversion of opioids from legal to illegal supply channels.)
In March, South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley filed a lawsuit akin to the Ohio and North Dakota suits in state circuit court, while Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill’s office hired a Washington, D.C.-based law firm to help investigate whether to file one.
Additionally, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska and South Dakota are among a group of 41 states whose attorneys general are jointly investigating opioid makers.
Opioid-related lawsuits have a function as public health policy in dealing with the opioid epidemic, but they can’t be the only tactic because manufacturers are just one facet of the problem, says Rep. Patricia Bellock, who sits on the Illinois House Human Services and Mental Health committees.
“I would say, ‘Yeah, remember tobacco?’” she says, referencing the 1998 Tobacco Master Agreement between cigarette makers and 46 state attorneys general. In that agreement, states settled their Medicaid lawsuits against the tobacco industry for recovery of tobacco-related health care costs in exchange for annual payments to compensate for the costs of caring for people with smoking-related illnesses.
With opioids, Bellock adds, the problem extends beyond manufacturers to doctors willing to prescribe opioids and patients who demand them, and to the public, which still needs to be educated about the crisis.
“We have to deal with all of the issues involved in this crisis, not just one,” she says.


Article written by Jon Davis, CSG Midwest staff liaison for the Midwestern Legislative Conference Health & Human Services Committee.