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Editorial: Opioid lawsuits offer a quick high, quick letdown

In this litigious world, New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas’ decision to join other states in suing Big Pharma over the nationwide opioid crisis makes a good headline. Ditto for the lawsuit from Mora County that preceded it and the one expected to follow from Bernalillo County. In fact, at last count the Washington Post had 25 states, cities and counties suing manufacturers, distributors and drugstore chains in connection with opioids, with more being filed almost weekly.

But it’s hard to determine how New Mexico residents would benefit from a far-from-guaranteed win.

While Balderas says the suit was filed to hold drug manufacturers and distributors “accountable” and to increase funding for opioid addiction treatment and law enforcement, it’s questionable that any money derived from it would actually be used for the stated purposes.

Remember when New Mexico won millions from Big Tobacco in a 1998 settlement agreement? The windfall, to an embarrassing extent, has ended up being a slush fund for legislative priorities that have nothing to do smoking’s impact. Tobacco settlement money has been used to balance the general budget, prop up the state lottery’s scholarship fund, cover costs for early childhood education – and the list goes on. Sure, some of that money from the “permanent” tobacco settlement fund pays for anti-smoking programs, but you get the picture.

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Balderas contends opioid manufacturers “pushed highly addictive, dangerous opioids” on the public and failed to tell doctors how addictive they were. The suit also says drug distributors “violated their duties by selling huge quantities of opioids that were diverted from their lawful medical purpose,” thus causing an opioid/heroin/overdose epidemic.

Does anyone believe someone with a medical degree doesn’t understand opioids are addictive? Then again, suing individual doctor feel-goods who hand painkillers out like Pez is nowhere as promisingly lucrative as suing Big Pharma’s deep pockets. As for diverted opioids, how are distributors responsible for things they sell being stolen from people they sell them to?

And where is personal responsibility in all of this?

The suits also fail to mention that opioids have been around for decades, are highly effective painkillers many patients do use as prescribed, and New Mexico had a chronic heroin problem long before the current opioid crisis – largely because of proximity to Mexico and illegal drug trade routes.

Attributing the opioid crisis to manufacturers and distributors ignores the real problem – demand.

There is no denying that the widespread availability, and popularity, of opioids has exacerbated this state’s opioid addiction and overdose rates, and that more must be done to address the scourge. Reforms – including New Mexico’s Prescription Monitoring Program, which requires health care providers check a patient’s prescription history in the PMP database to block doctor shopping for drugs – are working. The state Health Department announced a 63 percent increase in providers using the PMP since last year and a 5 percent decline in opioid prescriptions.

Sure there’s a lure to joining major suits like this one: For a somewhat modest investment, the state or counties might eventually realize a windfall (nowhere equal to what plaintiffs attorneys will make by comparison). New Mexico gets millions annually from Big Tobacco.

In July, Balderas joined a lawsuit against six generic drugmakers, alleging they conspired to hike prices for a common antibiotic and a diabetes medication. More recently, he’s signed onto a suit seeking to block President Donald Trump’s attempt to scrap the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) immigration program. While the former targets collusion and price gouging, and the latter is an immediate problem for about 7,300 DACA recipients here, this latest suit has a lot in common with the state’s opioid problem:

It delivers a quick high and a just-as-quick letdown.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.


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