Galveston County Commissioners tend to talk a lot about conservative principles. So, it was astonishing Monday when the court took steps to file a lawsuit against manufacturers of opioids — known to most of us as painkillers — to recover the costs to taxpayers related to abuse of such drugs, including the expenses of law enforcement, incarceration and addiction treatment.
It was a long way from the conservative mantra of personal responsibility and raised questions about precedents and logical conclusions.
Will we then sue gun makers to recoup costs for shooting injuries and deaths? What about the carmakers for the public cost of tending to the aftermath of wrecks? The cellphone makers for distracting the drivers who caused the wrecks? How about makers of alcoholic beverages? Has anyone ever calculated the social and financial costs of alcohol abuse on the county? What would we find? Probably that alcohol abuse is an expensive social ill for the county.
Why not sue food makers? The county, along with other employers could probably make a solid case that obesity and abuse of food — overeating is abuse of food — costs much in lost productivity every day.
The commissioners voted unanimously to authorize County Judge Mark Henry to request the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts review and approve the county to contract with law firms on a contingent fee basis.
The state must approve contingent fee contracts. Commissioners would still need to vote on a contingent fee contract with the law firms, which would allow the firms to sue on the county’s behalf and collect a fee from any money awarded, officials said. The lawsuit would not cost the county, Robert Boemer, an attorney for the county, said.
Still, it would come with a price, strengthening the premise that the makers of things — be it a painkiller or a baseball bat — are responsible for the irresponsible use of things they make.
We understand that opioid abuse is a crisis. Drug overdose deaths and opioid-involved deaths continue to increase in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 1999, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription opioids and heroin) quadrupled, according to the CDC. From 2000 to 2015, more than half a million people died from drug overdoses. And 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose, according to the CDC. When addicted patients can’t find opioids through legal channels, they find synthetic versions on the streets, contributing to drug crimes.
The amount of prescription opioids sold to pharmacies, hospitals and doctors’ offices nearly quadrupled from 1999 to 2010, yet there had not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans reported, according to the CDC.
We don’t deny it’s a public health crisis in dire need of a solution. Earlier this summer, Ohio’s Attorney General Mike DeWine filed a lawsuit against a handful of pharmaceutical companies, including Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals and Johnson & Johnson, accusing the companies of spending millions on marketing campaigns that “trivialize the risks of opioids while overstating the benefits of using them for chronic pain.”
Pharmaceutical companies aren’t blameless. On the contrary. They know opioids are highly addictive but saw profits. It’s that simple.
Opioids make some brain cells pump out a chemical messenger called dopamine, which encourages more drug use.
Food, alcohol and other recreational drugs light up similar reward pathways of the brain.
But ultimately, it’s a consumer-beware proposition. We urge doctors and patients to educate themselves about opioid abuse.
It’s tempting to make comparisons to lawsuits in the 1990s against Big Tobacco. But there’s a key difference, legal experts say. People used tobacco in the way it was intended but still got sick. But the courts — so far at least — have held individual victims largely responsible for their addiction or abuse of opioids, Richard Ausness, a professor at the University of Kentucky College of Law, told The Atlantic.
In a June 2017 article, Ausness said people who die from overdoses often aren’t using the pills the way they were prescribed, but are obtaining them on the black market.
“It is difficult to persuade courts that FDA-approved prescription drugs are defective and that their warnings are inadequate,” Ausness told The Atlantic.
Our stance is that it should be very difficult to persuade courts that it’s someone else’s fault when someone abuses drugs or anything else. Filing such lawsuits can be habit-forming, deflects from the real issue and deprives people of the responsibility they should take.
• Laura Elder