Overcoming Opioids Cures Act

This Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York. (AP Photo/Patrick Sison)

Patrick Sison

If Louisiana, like the rest of America, is going to succeed in waging war on opioid addiction, we should have a clear idea of who — or what — we’re fighting.

This is a battle against more than one enemy, which is one reason it’s proven so hard to win. That messy reality can easily get lost while government officials across Louisiana target the pharmaceutical industry as the major culprit in an ongoing crisis.

The cities of Baton Rouge and Covington are suing the industry, and the city of New Orleans is advancing a suit, too. State officials also want to take opioid makers and distributors to court, though Gov. John Bel Edwards and Attorney General Jeff Landry are arguing about how the litigation should proceed. Thirteen sheriffs, mostly from rural parishes, have their own suits in the works.

The plaintiffs claim that drugmakers and sellers didn’t properly monitor how opioids were being used, creating lots of addicts who are now costing law enforcement, paramedic and health care agencies a fortune.

The scale of addiction to the pain killers is undeniable. More than 42,000 people across America died from opioid overdoses in 2016, the latest year for which complete figures are available. Louisiana ranks among the Top 10 states for opioid prescriptions. State and local governments are already strapped, so the extra cost of dealing with opioid-related problems is a special challenge.

Louisiana governments, lawyers file lawsuits against drug companies for rise of opioid cases

We don’t know to what degree the drug industry is responsible for the crisis, a question the courts are supposed to decide. What seems obvious at this point is that more than one culprit is involved. Many things deepen and complicate the scourge of addiction, including the desperation of broken families and troubled neighborhoods, as well as limited access to treatment.

Clearly, a problem this big won’t be beaten with the bang of a judge’s gavel. The resolution of these court cases could take years, and the addicts and agencies responding to their plight can’t wait for the wheels of justice to act.

The danger with lawsuits of this scale is always that the litigation can quickly become not a means to an end, but an end in itself — a cash cow for lawyers who enjoy the patronage of politicians. A casual survey of the local attorneys involved in the opioid lawsuits so far reads like a Who’s Who of statehouse and city hall insiders.

The war against opioid addiction promises to be a long and costly one. It should be waged on behalf of the public, not profiteers.