LITTLE ROCK -- In a settlement of a major lawsuit, pharmaceutical manufacturers who make and market opioids will pay $216 million to Arkansas cities, counties and state government.
The money will be spent on prevention and treatment of people who became addicted to painkillers such as hydrocodone, oxycodone and fentanyl.
Arkansas was one of 40 states who sued drug companies over their trade practices. Thousands of cities and counties in the United States joined the lawsuit. In July, four companies agreed to pay $26 billion to settle a flood of litigation.
The lawsuit was unprecedented because of the number of jurisdictions that joined the fight. The lawsuit was initiated in 2018, when 72 Arkansas counties and 210 cities joined the state in seeking damages from the pharmaceutical manufacturers. The plaintiffs represent about 90 percent of the population of Arkansas.
The plaintiffs argued that drug companies should pay the enormous costs of drug treatment and rehabilitation, rather than taxpayers.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, more than 500,000 Americans died from overdoses of painkillers in a 10-year period.
The Covid-19 pandemic made the opioid epidemic even worse. According to federal authorities, 93,000 people died from an overdose last year. The previous record was 72,000 deaths from opioid overdoses.
The CDC reports that in 1970, there were only 7,200 deaths due to overdoses of prescription painkillers. In 1970, drug enforcement was focused on an alarming rise in heroin use.
In 1988, when law enforcement was battling a surge in the use of crack cocaine, about 9,000 Americans died from abusing painkillers.
The alarming rise in the number of deaths from overdoses has coincided with large increases in the sales of painkillers. For example, in Arkansas in 2017 there were more prescriptions for painkillers than there were people. Enough opioids were prescribed in Arkansas for each person to have 80 pills.
Nationwide, drug companies have been paying hundreds of millions to plaintiffs. An Oklahoma judge ordered one company to pay $465 million in 2019. However, in a legal first, drug manufacturers won a legal battle in California recently, when a judge ruled that government officials had failed to prove that drug companies used deceptive marketing practices.
A key component in the lawsuits is that drug companies downplayed the risks of addiction when they marketed opioids to physicians. Also, the plaintiffs alleged that drug companies overemphasized the benefits of opioids in treating chronic pain over long term periods of time.
In the 1970s and 1980s, opioids were more commonly prescribed for short-term relief of pain, usually after surgery, or for pain from a terminal illness such as cancer.
According to reports from the Mayo Clinic, OxyContin was approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration in 1995. Its makers began aggressively marketing it for chronic pain in 1998, producing 15,000 videos for primary care physicians.
"The promotional message encouraged prescribers to use this opioid as an ongoing treatment for chronic pain and highlighted the lack of side effects," Mayo reported. The annual number of prescriptions for OxyContin increased from 670,000 to 6.2 million between 1997 and 2002.