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Will drug companies be held accountable for America’s opioid epidemic?

The nation’s opioid crisis was declared a public health emergency in 2017 and received new funding this past October. But rampant addiction led to some 40,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. last year, and 2019 could see the culmination of a flood of ensuing lawsuits seeking accountability. William Brangham speaks to Barry Meier, who explores the origins of the epidemic in a new book, “Pain Killer.”

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    It was declared a public health emergency in 2017, and received new funding as part of an October law. But the nation's opioid crisis remains a slow-moving disaster, responsible for some 40,000 overdose deaths in America last year.

    As William Brangham reports, this year could see the culmination of a flood of lawsuits, all seeking accountability for the epidemic and trying to secure more money to treat its victims.

  • William Brangham:

    There are dozens and dozens of lawsuits right now accusing opioid manufacturers, distributors and retailers of failing to do enough to stop the flow of these drugs into U.S. communities.

    These lawsuits, which are largely brought by states and cities impacted by the crisis, allege that many of these actors could have done more and acted sooner to stop the addiction and deaths of so many Americans.

    Barry Meier covered this epidemic for 17 years for The New York Times. He wrote a book about Purdue Pharma, the company behind the billion-dollar opioid OxyContin. It's called "Pain Killer: An Empire of Deceit and the Origin of America's Opioid Epidemic."

    And he joins me now from New York.

    Barry Meier, recently in a New York Times editorial, you argued that you're concerned that many of these cities and states might settle these lawsuits and that, in settling, the public will get shortchanged. What do you mean by that?

  • Barry Meier:

    Well, William, this isn't an ordinary situation. It's an extraordinary situation.

    Every year, tens of thousands of people die from these drugs in overdoses, and that's the result of their overuse, their misuse, their overdistribution and overpromotion.

    And, you know, we can't deal with this as an ordinary, you know, lawsuit, where money is transferred from companies to cities or from companies to plaintiffs' lawyers.

    At this juncture, we have to know the truth. Why did these companies act in this way? What did they know? Who are the decision-makers? Why did they decide to flood this country with millions and millions of pain pills?

  • William Brangham:

    One of the pieces of evidence that I know you hold very strongly in this case is, there's 120-page DOJ document that you were leaked. And this was about a case that was being brought against Purdue Pharma.

    And the DOJ prosecutors in that case felt that they had enough evidence to prosecute, I think it was at least three highly-ranked Purdue executives.

    Can you remind us what the evidence showed in that case?

  • Barry Meier:

    What the prosecutors alleged was that these three top executives knew almost immediately after OxyContin appeared in the market, which was 1996, that it was being diverted to the street, that it was a drug of abuse, and that they had gotten consistent reports, reports that the prosecutors believe should have been the basis for a public alert, a public warning.

    And it's quite possible that, had the company made those — that alert in time, a lot of the havoc that we see today wouldn't have occurred. More importantly, had this evidence been made public during a trial of these expensive, the practices of doctors may have changed, the position of public regulators regarding the — OxyContin and other drugs may have stiffened.

    I mean, it's a stunning statistic, but in the five years at the Justice Department decided to settle this case, more than 80,000 Americans died of overdoses involving prescription painkillers, including OxyContin.

  • William Brangham:

    You also argued that another settlement in 2001 against Purdue by the state of Florida had a similar effect of hiding relevant information that would have helped change the course of this epidemic.

  • Barry Meier:


    I mean, all along the way, you had situations where either public officials or plaintiffs' lawyers, had they been aggressive, had they gotten the documents that were inside Purdue, could have brought information to light that would have changed medical practice, would have changed the attitudes of patients, would have changed the attitudes of regulators.

    But, time after time after time, they balked, they settled, either for political reasons, for financial expediency. And so this ball just kept rolling and rolling. It's not that we're discovering anything new now. It's that we're only discovering what had been hidden for 15 years.

  • William Brangham:

    But, as you well know — and you pointed this out in your editorial — there are communities all over this country — I know you and I both have been to many of them — that are desperate for money, desperate for money to train new addiction specialists, desperate for more money to buy Narcan, desperate to open more treatment beds.

    And settlement money now could possibly mean saving lives now. And so you understand the tension there, that they might want to settle, a state might want to settle, because they need this money to treat people today.

  • Barry Meier:

    I totally understand. And I totally understand that it's a difficult decision.

    Nonetheless, I believe a lot of that money can come from public coffers. There's really no reason why the people who created this crisis are going to profit from selling drugs to cure the crisis.

    I mean, I, as a taxpayer, would prefer seeing my money going to those purposes than many of the other purposes that it's currently being used for.

    I think that, eventually, the cities and states will get the money from industry, but these cases shouldn't be settled absent a total and complete disclosure of the internal documents of this — of these companies.

    There is a history here, and we cannot allow that history to be buried.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's say that we do get a better accounting of what all of these companies' role, if any, played in this crisis. Do you think that that's important just for this current crisis? Or do you think that this is part of about sending a message for the — for the next crisis and on down the road?

  • Barry Meier:

    I think it's absolutely important for the future.

    I think that we are in a situation where the history of this epidemic will inform how drugs are approved in the future, how they're regulated in the future, the actions of corporations in the future.

    You cannot have corporate executives going home to their comfortable lives, knowing that millions of pain pills are being shipped to areas like West Virginia, where abuse is ramping, without there being some eventual accounting for their activities.

  • William Brangham:

    Barry Meier, thank you very much for your time.

  • Barry Meier:

    Thanks, William.

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