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Editorial: County is right to sue drug companies for their possible link to opioid crisis

Erie County is joining a handful of other counties around the state and country in suing the manufacturers of powerful painkillers, contending that the companies misled both doctors and the public about the substances’ fiercely addictive nature.

If that is true, then what the drugmakers did is akin to the despicable actions of tobacco companies that manipulated their products’ addictive qualities while working to deceive the public about the health risks. And, for that, the pharmaceutical companies would deserve to be held liable.

Drugs such as Oxycodone have helped many people suffering chronic, sometimes excruciating, pain. But those substances are also cousins to heroin, which is both cheaper and readily available. It is the desperate resort for thousands of addicted patients whose prescriptions run out.

Those poor souls are dying at an alarming rate as they overdose, often on heroin spiked with fentanyl. The human and economic costs are staggering. If the manufacturers facilitated this tragedy, then they should be on the hook for its terrible consequences.

With its decision, Erie County is joining at least two other counties in New York and others around the country in seeking to hold drug companies accountable for the scythe of opioid addiction cutting through families and governments.

In September, Suffolk County, on Long Island, sued 11 drug companies and four physicians. Last week, Broome County, in the eastern Southern Tier, filed its own lawsuit. Elsewhere, two counties in California have sued pharmaceutical companies over the painkillers, as has the City of Chicago. More counties are expected to file their own lawsuits.

Assuming these companies behaved in the way that plaintiffs are alleging, the action against American tobacco companies would seem to offer a prophetic precedent. In that case, settled in 1998 for a minimum of $206 billion, 46 states won compensation for public health costs associated with tobacco use and based on what they described as deceptive and fraudulent practices over the course of decades.

That case was not without its critics, some of whom thought the dangers of smoking were obvious, despite the tobacco industry’s stonewalling and denial. Thus, according to that theory, smokers made independent choices to take up the habit.

It was a poor argument. Once the industry conspired, however ineffectively, to conceal the truth about the health risks of tobacco use, it had made its bed. It was going to make billions of dollar by tempting customers into a debilitating, sometimes lethal habit whose properties it clearly understood but worked to conceal.

Erie County says that’s what happened regarding opioid painkillers. It also is suing some doctors as well as the manufacturers, alleging they violated state laws through deception, false advertising, fraud and unjust enrichment, among other claims.

“I would say the vast majority who’ve died in the last few years are those who started with a legal prescription,” said Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz. That’s because they have turned to heroin, but unfortunately, the heroin they buy has often been spiked with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that the National Institute on Drug Abuse says is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. For many users, it’s a death sentence.

Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn has said – appropriately – that he will crack down on dealers taking advantage of addicted users of opioid painkillers. It is just as appropriate to hold the companies accountable if they engaged in nefarious conduct that has precipitated a national crisis.

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