By Elise Meyer
Over 140 Americans die every day from drug overdoses, the majority of which are opioid-related, according to new data released by the National Center for Health Statistics. With such astounding statistics there is no question the United States is experiencing a truly devastating opioid epidemic. Indeed, President Trump announced that he will sign an emergency declaration next week, officially pronouncing the opioid crisis a national emergency.
Many are asking when this crisis began, how we got here, and who is responsible. The answer, some say, lies with big pharmaceutical companies. Those big pharma companies, according to allegations put forth in litigation across the country, engaged in deceptive and unfair marketing to mislead doctors and patients as to the risks of prescription opioid use. Marketing of prescription opioids was so aggressive in the 1990s that it lead to a paradigm shift wherein physicians considered pain the fifth vital sign and the medical community believed that “compassionate treatment of pain required opioids.”
As one would expect, these big pharma companies, including manufacturers and distributors, have recently come under legal scrutiny throughout the country. Government entities across the nation have filed more than 70 lawsuits in 11 federal districts against big pharma companies. There are so many cases, in fact, that government plaintiffs are asking for these cases to be consolidated into a single case before one federal court. However, a consolidation of cases is not the only recent cross-state collaboration. In June, a bipartisan coalition of 41 states’ attorneys general announced a multistate investigation of major pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors for their role in the opioid crisis. In September, the coalition began subpoenaing big pharma companies for their records in connection to the multistate investigation.
While opioid-related litigation has been making headlines in the past few months, such litigation was not initially popular. It was plaintiffs like the City of Chicago who helped forge the way. In 2014, Chicago sued five major opioid manufacturers, including Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin. Indeed, the City of Chicago’s path-breaking lawsuit was one of the early challenges to opioid manufacturers in an attempt to put an end to their deceptive marketing practices and hold them accountable for the physical, emotional, and financial damage they enacted on the city and its residents.
While this important litigation seeks to enjoin the big pharma companies from continuing their allegedly false and deceptive marketing practices and pay the city restitution as well as damages, it is not the only solution. Despite the opioids epidemic having been on the radar of powerful figures for quite some time, the newest data released by the National Center for Health Statistics indicates that the problem continues to worsen. We have not yet crested the arc of the opioid epidemic and litigation is only part of the solution.
The only way forward is through a strong and prompt interdisciplinary response that includes clinicians, law enforcement, elected officials, researchers, activists, and many others. The effort must also acknowledge that the approach to pain management and prescription medication has to change. This is the type of response we at Northwestern’s Access to Health Project hope to foster at our opioids roundtable this week entitled “Identifying the Metrics of Success in Interdisciplinary Addiction Response.” We believe that a research university, like Northwestern, with its breadth and depth of expertise and its ability to approach solutions impartially, without a vested interest in any one approach, is well-placed, if not obligated, to host this kind of cross-sector discussion.
The roundtable will be a space for Chicago-based stakeholders to develop concrete action items and form a Chicago-focused interdisciplinary working group on opioids, addiction, prevention, and response. We hope this working group will help Chicago crest the arc of the opioids epidemic and be able to champion solutions that will serve as success stories for the rest of the country in the coming years.
The public is invited to participate by attending the Closing Address by Chicago Corporation Counsel Edward N. Siskel, entitled “Step One, Admitting We Have a Problem: Leadership Responses to the Opioids Epidemic at Federal, State, and Local Levels.” For more information on the Closing Address, please visit the event’s website.
Elise Meyer is the Schuette Clinical Fellow in Health and Human Rights at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law where she supports the Access to Health Project. Her previous work has included conducting training in international human rights law in Myanmar with the Public International Law & Policy Group and advocacy on behalf of the Kenyan Ethical and Legal Issues Network to bring Kenyan HIV-related law and practice in line with Kenya’s new Constitution. In addition, she has supported advocacy work in the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights on violence against women, in conjunction with Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and the International Human Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago. While at the University of Chicago Law School, Elise served as the Editor-in-Chief of The Chicago Journal of International Law, and was awarded a Postgraduate Public Interest Fellowship and Salzburg Cutler Law Fellowship.
 Third Amended Complaint and Demand for Jury Trial at 6, City of Chicago v. Purdue Pharma LP et al., No. 14-cv-04361 (N.D. Ill, 2016), available at http://news.workcompacademy.com/2017/Opioid_Cases/Third_Amended_