Many are looking at the settlements with Big Tobacco to see how the opioid settlements—if there are any—might take shape.

During 2018, as opioid overdose rates continued to soar, municipalities from around the country vowed to hold drug manufacturers and distributors accountable. This year, 2019, will show how many of the lawsuits around the opioid epidemic will pan out. 

The plaintiffs — mostly local and county governments from around the country — hope that settlements from the lawsuits will help them recoup some of the costs of treating people addicted to opioids and maybe even help finance better treatment options going forward.

“We are still in the throes of a public health crisis in Summit County,” Greta Johnson, a county official in Akron, Ohio, told NPR. In order to respond to that crisis, she said, the county needs funds from the major companies that caused or contributed to the epidemic. “We’re confident the court will see it that way as well.”

Johnson’s argument, echoed in dozens of lawsuits, may sit well with Federal Judge Dan Polster, who is presiding over the largest group of lawsuits out of his Cleveland courtroom. Polster has called the opioid epidemic a “man-made plague,” and called for comprehensive solutions to the issues of addiction and recovery

While defendants will likely try to have certain allegations dismissed on legal technicalities — like the statutes of limitations being up — Richard Ausness, a law professor at the University of Kentucky, told NPR that effort is unlikely to succeed entirely.

“The judge has made it clear that he wants a settlement ultimately from this, along the lines of the tobacco settlement,” Ausness said. “If that is indeed the way that he feels, he is probably not going to let the defendants off the hook.”

As the court cases proceed, the public could learn even more about practices that led to millions of Americans becoming hooked on opioids. Attorney Joe Rice, who represents some governments suing Big Pharma, said that he would like to see the information about misleading advertising and other unscrupulous practices become common knowledge. 

“Our next battle is to get the documents that are being produced made available to the public instead of everything being filed under confidentiality agreements so we can get the facts out,” he said. 

Many people are looking at the settlements with big tobacco to see how the opioid settlements — if there are any — might take shape. Tobacco companies have paid more than $100 billion in damages to Americans, some of which have been used to fund anti-smoking public health campaigns. A similar settlement with manufacturers and distributors could impact how future generations are educated about drug use.  

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