Fighting our worst epidemic | Michigan Radio
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Fighting our worst epidemic

Dec 20, 2017

I was a teenager during the psychedelic 1960s, when my friends were tuning in, turning on, dropping acid, and later dropping out. For those of you who weren’t there and are seized with Sixties nostalgia, it was, more than most TV specials suggest, an age of anxiety.

Two boys in my seventh grade class died in Vietnam, and a third of a drug overdose. But not heroin, and nobody had ever heard of fentanyl. Heroin, or so we thought, was the drug of last resort for street hookers and dying jazz musicians.

That was somewhat naïve then, and times have changed now. The last two recovering heroin addicts I’ve talked with were middle-aged Ohio women who turned to it because they couldn’t get the prescription painkillers they started with, or because it was cheaper.

We are, in case you missed it, in the worst drug epidemic in the history of this nation. Sixty-four thousand people died of overdoses last year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s more Americans than were killed in the entire Vietnam War, and almost five times as many as died of overdoses in 2000.

But it is almost certainly not as many as will die this year, the vast majority from opioids.

Yesterday, Detroit, Macomb County, and seven other counties and cities filed the mother of all lawsuits against a score of drug manufacturers, distributors and even drugstores. Mark Bernstein, the University of Michigan Regent and lead attorney here, told me this was coming a couple weeks ago. What I found most interesting is that they are going after the drug distributors, which I don’t think has happened before. This is a lawsuit that I would guess may well take years to resolve, and could rival Captain Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale.

We are talking potential settlements or verdicts that could be in the billions, but that is small change compared to the social cost of doing nothing.

Even if the problem doesn’t get any worse, the opioid epidemic will kill more people in the next decade than the entire population of the city of Detroit.

I am not a lawyer. Even if I were, I don’t know that I could speak to the legal merits of this multi-pronged lawsuit without considerable study. What I would guess, however, is that this could lead to something like what happened with big tobacco two decades ago.

That resulted in a master settlement agreement under which the states got more than two hundred billion dollars over a quarter-century, to compensate them for the costs tobacco had inflicted on their residents. That money was supposed to be used for public health programs, but our lawmakers disgracefully sold our rights off for pennies on the dollar to plug budget holes.

What’s most important with the opioid epidemic is that we stop it. These lawsuits are aimed at making drugs more costly and harder to get, and that might do some good.

But the real problem was best stated by the internet magazine Vox a couple months ago: “It is much easier to get high than to get help.” Unless we are willing to do something about that, well, whatever settlements Big Pharma has to pay will just be user fees.

And the problem will just keep getting worse.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.