The man who led one of the most successful lawsuits against the tobacco industry of all time is looking to have repeat success. This time his target is the pharmaceutical companies responsible for proliferating the American opioid crisis.
In 1994, Mike Moore led an expansive coalition of Attorney Generals to launch a case against 13 major tobacco companies, and eventually won. It forced these companies to make continued payments to states for the damages caused by their products. It was also the case that ended the cartoon cigarette smoking mascot Joe Camel. Using similar tactics, Moore hopes to strike a blow against companies like Purdue Pharma, who rake in billions from the drugs that are now killing thousands.
Before the 1980s, opioid-based painkillers were rarely used outside of postoperative and palliative care.
Purdue spotted a group of researchers proposing their expanded use for pain treatment. Seeing a new, lucrative market, Purdue helped push their case hard. Throughout the 90s they pushed their drugs, most infamously OxyContin, for more commonplace usage. They made claims negating the addiction risks, told patients whose doctors wouldn’t prescribe them to seek doctors who would and led an advertising campaign that seem grotesque by today’s standard.
Big-pharma is, of course, pushing back. Largely they are claiming that their big push and the materials from it are old news to today’s crisis, and that they have been working to stem addiction issues, though opioid addiction rates are higher now than in the 90s. 33,000 people died from opioid-related overdoses in 2015, the most recent number.
For the 1994 case, Moore had Jeffrey Wigand, a whistleblower who revealed that the tobacco companies had suppressed research proving damages of their products. The case was the basis for the Michael Mann movie The Insider, and Moore played himself in the film. Moore believes a whistleblower of the same scale from one of these pharma companies is inevitable. In any case, the theatrics of such a large suit are sort of the point and purpose of the suit itself.
“Litigation is a blunt instrument; it’s not a surgical tool,” Moore told Bloomberg. “But it provokes interest quicker than anything I’ve ever seen.”
Despite the public rhetoric and the US government’s war on drugs, Moore believed that big-tobacco posed a far greater threat to the American people than illegal narcotics.
In a 1998 interview with PBS Frontline, Moore said, “All the illegal drugs in America cause twenty thousand deaths a year. Cocaine, marijuana, heroin, all of them. Tobacco kills four hundred twenty thousand people a year. That’s 21 times the number of deaths… Deaths are not quite as immediate as in the cocaine trade or in the illegal drug traffic, but they’re much more detrimental, in my opinion.”
Between Moore’s crusade against tobacco and the most recent push against painkillers, Moore had smaller, private suits against the pharma companies that led to little more than settlements. He also oversaw negotiations of British Petroleum’s settlement for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. For Moore, the fight against the opioid epidemic is personal. According to the Bloomberg feature his own nephew has been struggling with an addiction for over a decade, starting from a cocktail of fentanyl, Percocet, Demerol and others prescribed to recover from a gunshot wound.
Between tobacco’s cultural reign to America’s current addiction epidemic, it’s clear that medical companies deserves just as much, if not more, scrutiny as the black market drug trade. With legalization of marijuana and studies into cannabis’ medical qualities, contrasted with the growing death toll of opioid addiction, the need to find non-addictive alternatives in pain treatment is as imperative as ever.