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Opioids As The New Big Tobacco


Some state attorneys general have been filing lawsuits against the biggest companies in the opioid market. They are suing drug companies over the hazards of their products the same way states once sued the tobacco industry. Ailsa Chang of NPR's Planet Money podcast asked what is similar about the two fights and what is not.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: When lawyers look at tobacco and opioids, they see two powerful industries that raked in billions of dollars. Both pushed an addictive product that sent the country spiraling into a public health crisis. There was misleading marketing, downplayed health risks. And all this overlap may explain why there's a returning cast of characters.

May I ask how much money you personally made in the tobacco cases?

JOE RICE: You may ask. I'm not going to answer.

CHANG: Joe Rice of Charleston, S.C., was the lead negotiator for plaintiffs in a $250 billion settlement with the tobacco industry in 1998. It's still the biggest civil settlement in history. Now his firm's embroiled in the opioid fight. They're taking on manufacturers on behalf of the New Hampshire state attorney general, Santa Clara County in California and the city of Chicago.

Maybe the more jaded of us are looking at this opioid craze and thinking, wow, like, this is the next thing up for plaintiffs' lawyers. This is - we're going to see a scramble. Do you think that's what's happening here?

RICE: You know, certainly I'm sure there are certain attorneys looking at it on a pure economic basis. But you're going to have to put a lot of money in before you ever think about getting any money out - if you get it out.

CHANG: If you get it out. The opioid industry cannot afford to pay what big tobacco did in the 1990s. In dollar amounts, the tobacco market back then dwarfs the opioid market now. And that's not all.

What feels harder about this legal fight against the opioid industry than the fight against big tobacco in the '90s?

RICE: Well, there's several things. Number one, the FDA did approve this drug. And they had approved it for limited uses and approved it with certain warnings on it.

CHANG: Which means manufacturers and distributors might be able to shift some of the blame to the federal government.

RICE: The second issue is, tobacco was a straight product sold from the company to the consumer. Here, you've got an intermediary doctor or physician that's prescribing the drug.

CHANG: That's a point drug companies keep hitting home. There are intermediaries. Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, said in a written statement to NPR that the difference between them and tobacco companies is there are so many more players in the opioid supply chain. And with cigarettes, people who were using the product as directed were getting cancer. Opioids are different. Here's Jim Tierney, a former attorney general of Maine and an adviser in the tobacco and opioid lawsuits.

JIM TIERNEY: Inherent in tobacco is that if you use it, your health will disintegrate, and it will eventually kill you. That's - if opioids are used appropriately, then they can improve your health.

CHANG: There's a legitimate medical need for these drugs, so trying to wipe out the industry isn't an option. Besides, Tierney says, the lesson learned from the tobacco lawsuits is it's not how much money states get. It's how they spend it.

TIERNEY: So if you're going to get money, don't make the mistake in tobacco and let it be used by whatever the legislature wants. They'll use it to pave roads. I mean, they don't - or lower taxes or something preposterous when we have a huge health crisis.

CHANG: The tobacco money was never all that useful in preventing addiction. Tierney hopes this time will work out a little differently. Ailsa Chang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEV'S "WINTER TRAIN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.