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Big Pharma should pay for its role in opioid addiction | Mike Newall

Big Pharma should pay. For the ambulances, the Narcan, the outreach workers, the treatment options. For the funerals. For all of it. It's a cold calculus, of course: there's no recouping a human life.

So now it's Philly vs. Big Pharma. Well, specifically, it's Philly vs. Purdue Pharma, Allergan, Johnson & Johnson, and the Pennsylvania-based Cephalon.

Philadelphia on Wednesday joined dozens of other cities, states and counties that have sued the makers of prescription opioids in the last two years, since it became clear that the multibillion-dollar industry and its marketing tactics had fueled the deadliest drug epidemic in American history.

The suit, filed in Common Pleas Court, is aimed at stopping those tactics and recouping the staggering costs of the epidemic — at getting the companies that created the crisis to pay for the solutions.

There's an abundance of evidence that drug manufacturers peddled drugs like candy, lied about their addictive effects, and failed to act as pill mills raked in the cash. And when it became clear that more patients were becoming addicted, they told doctors to prescribe patients more, to ease their urges and their pain. They still do, even as the epidemic grows.

These are drug dealers, plain and simple. And the worst kind, because they hide behind the sheen of respectability and power.

Now, they should pay. For the ambulances, the naloxone, the outreach workers, the treatment options. For the funerals. For all of it.

It's a cold calculus, of course: There's no recouping a human life.

Cases like these are challenging. Today's lawsuits are modeled on the groundbreaking suits against the tobacco industry in the 1990s, which ended in settlements instead of dramatic courtroom showdowns. Swamped with litigation, tobacco companies simply gave in — to the tune of $200 billion.

Pharma executives have been quick to remind litigants that the addictive substance they're peddling is FDA-approved. A payday on the level of the tobacco industry settlements will be a fight.

Don't get me wrong. Despite any challenges, Philly, and the flood of other cities, like Chicago, Seattle, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis, that have already filed suits, should still go after Big Pharma for everything they've got. The human cost alone is unimaginable.

The city Health Department estimates that as many as 50,000 Philadelphians are misusing prescriptions opioids. And in 2016 alone, they estimate that front-line workers responded to as many as 10,000 overdose incidents. There were more than 900 deaths. Those numbers rose, of course.

With an expected 1,200 deaths in 2017, Philadelphia has the fourth-highest rate of overdose deaths among all U.S. cities and the highest among big cities. And the monetary costs can overwhelm cash-strapped cities facing overwhelming death rates.

At the City Hall news conference Wednesday announcing the lawsuit, City Solicitor Sozi Pedro Tulante said that amid a national crisis, the lawsuit tells the story of an epidemic in our city. "We want to talk about Philadelphia's story," he said.

The lawsuit is a great step, if an increasingly conventional one — a way for Philadelphia to join a national response to an epidemic that has received precious little attention from the Trump administration. Elsewhere there have been concerns that cities could use litigation as an easy-to-point-to action without getting involved on the ground.

Philly knows better.

This past year, Philadelphia has worked to get its ground game together and has taken steps onto the national stage: in harm-reduction efforts like handing out thousands of naloxone doses that have likely stopped the death count from rising even higher; in considering once-radical, now commonsense solutions like safe injection sites. If the city decides to open one, it could be the first in the country to do so. (Seattle is also close.)

Whatever millions are eventually clawed out of Big Pharma will not save lives this year. A safe injection site and other harm reduction and treatment services will. Today's lawsuit means the city will stand with its peers against the opioid crisis. But Philadelphia now has a chance to lead them. We should take it.