The opioid crisis has been making national headlines recently. Instances of addiction and death resulting from opioid use are at an all-time high. Last year Washington declared the crisis to be a public health emergency.
Opioids are a class of drugs that include legal, prescription pain relievers (such as morphine, codeine, Vicodin® and OxyContin®) as well as the illicit drug heroin. At the end of the 20th century, pharmaceutical companies—promising that opioids had a low risk of addiction—successfully convinced physicians to begin prescribing the drugs at higher rates. In the intervening 20 years, the addictive qualities of these drugs have been proven, and instances of overdose have skyrocketed.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioid abuse claimed the lives of over 33,000 in 2015. That year, over half a million people in the U.S. suffered from substance use disorders stemming from heroin use, while more than 2 million people suffered from such disorders as a result of prescription opioids. Prescription opioid abuse alone is estimated to cost the United States nearly $80 billion each year in expenses related to healthcare, social services, unemployment and criminal justice.
At the national level, the government has responded to this epidemic by ramping up research, treatment, alternative pain management and public health inspection. However, the state of Illinois has recently taken a different approach to the problem: It’s suing.
Six counties in Illinois have filed a lawsuit against some of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the country. The amount being sought in financial restitution has not yet been disclosed. However, these county governments are seeking to hold drug manufacturers responsible for “unlawful marketing” and pushing their own financial gain at the expense of the health and safety of Illinois residents.
The outcome of this case will be telling. If the plaintiffs are successful, it could set a new precedent for the drug companies’ responsibility to hold public health as its top priority.