PAINKILLER LAW: The Windy City, and the Winds of War

The

Chicago city attorney’s office, known as the Law Department, is taking a page from “Erin Brockovich” and gathering possible evidence for a massive lawsuit against pharmaceutical manufacturers who produce opioid painkillers. Media reports tell that City lawyers have issued subpoenas to drug manufacturers, trying to figure out whether the companies understated the drugs’ addiction potential and overstated product safety 10-15 years ago. 10-15 years ago was when drug companies lobbied hard – HARD – for approval to sell opioid painkillers for chronic pain treatment as opposed to acute (post-surgical) or cancer pain treatment. The companies won the fight, the FDA approved powerful painkillers for chronic pain, and 10-15 years later we see a national (and increasingly worldwide) public health crisis of addiction, overdose and death, even in legitimate patients who never use recreationally and who wouldn’t have imagined ever becoming addicted to anything except a good TV show.

There have been suspicions for a long time that drug manufacturers knew more than they let on, or at best, that they negligently promoted questionable science as the Oracle of Scientific Truth, and that the hype and irrational optimism played a large part in the drugs’ being approved for chronic pain treatment. Chicago’s lawyers want to see what companies knew and when, and whether information that we all know now was indeed understood way back then – but withheld or underplayed. If Chicago thinks it has a case, it will sue the companies who sold drugs that went on to be prescribed to City employees who took them after suffering workplace injury, and who then became addicted or debilitated.

Brilliant theory of liability and damages, or a Mayor’s Office publicity stunt? I guess we’ll find out. One indication, though, that maybe Chicago is shining a light in the right place: At last report, Purdue Pharmaceutical, manufacturer of Oxycontin, was attempting to resist compliance with the subpoena.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

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