As the opioid epidemic grows and worsens, so too do the real-life consequences here in Pierce County. That surely played into Tacoma’s decision last week to add its name to a growing list of cities, counties and states that have filed lawsuits against major prescription opioid manufacturers. Dreamstime TNS
As the opioid epidemic grows and worsens, so too do the real-life consequences here in Pierce County. That surely played into Tacoma’s decision last week to add its name to a growing list of cities, counties and states that have filed lawsuits against major prescription opioid manufacturers. Dreamstime TNS

Matt Driscoll

Lawsuits worked to curb Big Tobacco. Tacoma is right to try the same against opioid makers

September 20, 2017 11:00 AM

The pressure is mounting on manufacturers of prescription opioids for the misrepresentations they’ve made over the years and the toll those distortions have taken on communities.

Rightly so.

As the opioid epidemic grows and worsens, so too do the real-life consequences here in Pierce County.

That surely played into Tacoma’s decision last week to add its name to a growing list of cities, counties and states that have filed lawsuits against major prescription opioid manufacturers. Specifically, Tacoma is asking a federal court to award damages three times the amount of the city’s actual costs — a move permitted under Washington’s Consumer Protection Act and the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.

That surely will add up to millions of dollars.

But it doesn’t take an expert in law to realize that the real hope for change and financial retribution likely resides in the cumulative impact that lawsuits like Tacoma’s might have.

And that’s the real reason why the City of Destiny’s bold decision to jump into the fray is so important.

Across the country, opioid-related lawsuits like Tacoma’s now number in the 30s, according to David Ko, an attorney for the Seattle law firm Keller Rohrback working on the city’s case. Many have been filed in the last year. Just this week, attorneys general of 41 U.S. states announced plans to investigate the makers and distributors of opioid painkillers.

If that sounds reminiscent to the legal onslaught Big Tobacco faced prior to the landmark tobacco settlement of the late 1990s, it’s because it is, Ko says.

Both, he points out, involve lawsuits brought by state government municipalities against companies “raking in billions of dollars.”

And both, Ko believes, might help to inspire drug manufacturers to be more responsible with their products, especially with revenue increasingly at stake.

Let’s hope he’s right.

When it comes to potential outcomes, keyboard lawyers like myself are left to speculate about what will almost certainly be a lengthy legal process. Ko acknowledges that, at this point, “it’s clear ... that all of the defendants that have been sued thus far plan on defending the claims against them aggressively.”

It’s also no stretch to see that with every additional lawsuit the likelihood of drug manufacturers moving to settle the cases, consolidate them or reach some sort of global resolution only grows.

Legally, and from the cold perspective of the bottom line, such a conclusion looks smarter and smarter for drug manufactures. At some point, perhaps it becomes inevitable.

Which brings us back to Tacoma, and the city’s laudable decision to throw its weight behind the cause.

There’s no question that Tacoma has felt the impacts, both on a human level and financially, of years of over-prescription and drug makers’ false claims of safety. They’re all around us, from the number of people living on the streets and suffering from addiction, to the resources the city has been forced to expend in response.

As The News Tribune reported last week, Tacoma’s lawsuit alleges that the drug manufacturers’ tactics have “fueled the city’s homelessness crisis, strained police resources and caused the city’s health insurance costs to skyrocket.”

“I think that the real strength of the case is that there is no shortage of information available now that reveals that these defendants have been making some serious misrepresentations about opioids,” Ko says. “Since our case is really about these misrepresentations, we feel pretty confident about the claims that we’re making.”

Specifically, Tacoma’s complaint highlights the deceptive practices used by drug manufacturers to support the idea that opioid painkillers were a safe, effective way to treat pain while posing little risk for addiction.

The legal argument cites jaw-dropping numbers, like the 289 million opioid pain-medication prescriptions written in 2016, “enough for every adult in the United States to have more than one bottle of pills,” and the $78.5 billion per year that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates as the total economic burden of prescription opioid abuse in the United States.

Tacoma’s lawsuit also points to substantial evidence of a “well-orchestrated marketing campaign” over the last two decades, directed at physicians and the public, suggesting “the risk of addiction to prescription opioids was low when opioids were prescribed to treat chronic pain.”

Just as was the case in the legal fight with Big Tobacco, in other words, clear signs of an attempt to mislead the public in a quest for profit are there. Tacoma’s lawsuit helps paints a damning picture of deception, and a city struggling to deal with its effects.

And just as was the case with Big Tobacco, righting that wrong, and reaching a conclusion that helps communities with its consequences, likely depends on a ratcheting up the legal pressure.

Which is precisely why Tacoma’s lawsuit really matters.

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