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How the opioids settlement will impact communities affected by addiction

After more than two years of negotiations, a number of states agreed to a $26 billion settlement with three large drug distributors and Johnson & Johnson for their roles in the opioids epidemic. Half a million deaths over two decades are attributed to opioids and fatal overdoses. William Brangham discusses the settlement with Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, who worked on this agreement.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has taken more than two years of negotiations, but a number of states have agreed to a $26 billion settlement with three large drug distributors and Johnson & Johnson for their roles in the opioids epidemic.

    Half-a-million deaths over two decades are attributed to the growth of opioids and fatal overdoses. The settlement would release these companies from legal liability.

    William Brangham has the details.

  • William Brangham:

    The three distributors, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, and McKesson, are accused of turning a blind eye to enormous, suspect shipments of opioids. They will pay $21 billion over 18 years.

    Johnson & Johnson, which made an opioid component, was accused of downplaying the addictive properties of their drugs. It will pay $5 billion over nine years. Many states now must review the settlement, determine how much they will get, and then decide if they will sign on.

    For the record, Johnson & Johnson is a funder of the "NewsHour."

    So, let's hear from one of the attorneys general who worked on this agreement, William Tong of Connecticut.

    Attorney General Tong, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    In the past, you have been a strong critic of other negotiations and settlements with regards to the opioid crisis. Why do you think this one is a strong one?

  • Attorney William Tong:

    This one goes to a significant degree to putting necessary funding for treatment and prevention out to cities and towns and states and families and victims across the country.

    And people need help right now. Other than the pandemic and the COVID crisis, the worst public health crisis in America is the opioid and addiction crisis. And it claims almost 100,000 lives every year across the country, more than 1,000 people, 1,000 families in Connecticut wrecked every single year by the opioid and addiction crisis.

    And it does more than $10 billion in damage to our state alone. So we need help now, and this is a huge down payment, I would say, for the coming years for every state and every community to try to manage our way through this crisis.

  • William Brangham:

    You touched a bit on what some of the money would be used for.

    Can you tell us a little bit more how that money would be spent? And, just as importantly, how do you protect against it getting diverted to non-addiction-related sources?

  • Attorney William Tong:

    So, by its very terms, this very large settlement will go towards abatement.

    So, this $26 billion deal represents the second largest cash settlement in history of any litigation in American history, exceeded only by the big tobacco settlement over 20 years ago. And we wanted to make sure that that money goes directly to treatment, prevention, addiction science, victims and their families, and helping people through the long road to recovery.

    So, by its terms, it directs that money to treatment and prevention, and it makes sure that that money gets to not just states, but we have made provision in this agreement for cities and towns and municipalities that are on the front lines of this battle.

  • William Brangham:

    I mean, the companies themselves still argue that they didn't do anything wrong, that they were making and distributing a legal, authorized product.

    And the implication is that this avalanche of lawsuits is what forced them to the negotiating table and now to this settlement.

    What do you make of that argument?

  • Attorney William Tong:

    Look, this settlement provides for a good amount and a good deal of accountability and justice for victims and their families.

    There's not enough money in the world to erase the pain and the suffering that families across this country have endured from the opioid and addiction crisis. And there isn't enough justice that we can produce for each of these families.

    But this goes, again, a long way to honoring their pain and suffering by funding treatment and prevention and doing everything we can to provide as much justice as we can. The truth is, is that the three major drug distributors distribute almost all of the prescription drugs in this country, including all the opioid and prescription pain medication. And they played a central role in moving these pills across the country that were often diverted and overprescribed.

    Johnson & Johnson played a central role in providing material for producing opioid pain medications and producing their own opioid products. And so the facts are there for everyone to see. And this $26 billion settlement is a recognition of the responsibility that the distributors and Johnson & Johnson must take for their role in this crisis.

  • William Brangham:

    As I mentioned before, the states still need to look this over and approve it. That's not a guarantee.

    Do you think that this amount will be enough to persuade them all to buy in and affirm this deal?

  • Attorney William Tong:

    Yes. Again, I know all the states know that this is the second largest cash settlement in history. They know that we have only done better once before. And that was with tobacco. And they know how hard this has been to negotiate this over several years.

    There have been many times when it wasn't clear this would happen, and the states persevered, and cities and towns. There are more than 4,000 cases pending now in one courtroom, a federal courtroom in Cleveland, Ohio. It's the multi-district litigation court where all the opioid cases are centrally managed.

    To resolve a case with 56 states, the territories and the District and thousands of private plaintiffs and cities and towns with their own claims is such a huge undertaking, that, only with the full cooperation of almost all the states and their attorneys general, Democrats, Republicans, and cities and towns and plaintiffs and victims across the country, only with everyone's hard work and combined effort could we get to this point.

    And so I have a lot of confidence that, from this point forward, everyone will see how important a deal this is and that people will embrace it and ratify it.

  • William Brangham:

    Separately, as you well know, Purdue Pharma Pharmaceuticals, the maker of OxyContin, is in separate negotiations, where they will declare bankruptcy, reorganize their corporation and pay upwards of $4 billion.

    Some states have been saying, yes, we like the contours of this deal. Where do you come down on that?

  • Attorney William Tong:

    I'm a hard no on this deal. And I'm joined by eight other states who reject this deal, because it does not provide enough justice.

    The Sacklers take no responsibility for their role, their singular role in the opioid and addiction crisis. And this money just isn't enough, relative to the amount of pain and damage the Sacklers have caused.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Attorney General William Tong of the state of Connecticut, thank you so much for being here.

  • Attorney William Tong:

    Thank you.

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