Opioid Lawsuits – Where Should Settlement Money Go?

Money in prescription bottle

An October 2019 article in USA Today focused on how critical it is that opioid lawsuit settlement dollars are used to treat addiction. This should be a given, to use settlements from pharma companies to treat addicts (especially considering that many addicts would not be addicts were it not for prescription painkillers). But the matter of such lawsuits and the resulting settlement money from them becomes complicated very quickly.

Our country is suffering from prescription drug addiction, particularly prescription opiate drug addiction. For almost two decades this crisis went on without pharmaceutical companies being held accountable. Now that’s all changing. Now there are thousands of ongoing lawsuits against the pharma companies that make opiate drugs.

But first, let’s look at why counties, cities, and states are suing pharma companies.

The Beginning of a Crisis

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, from 1999 to 2017, almost 400,000 people died from overdosing on opiate drugs. That’s nearly half a million deaths. If the trend continues, we’ll hit half a million deaths this year. All preventable. All avoidable. Yet there’s no going back and changing the fact that hundreds of thousands of Americans have died in the last two decades from opiates.

Overdoses from opiates are rapidly increasing. In 2017, the number of people who died from opiate overdoses was six times higher than it was in 1999. On average, about 130 people die from an opiate overdose every day. This crisis began with pain reliever drugs. Pharma companies increased the production of these drugs, doctors increased prescribing trends, and more patients began taking such drugs. The result? Skyrocketing addiction and overdose statistics.

Since about 2010, other opiate drugs have emerged on the drug scene. Heroin made a comeback, and illicit synthetic opioids like fentanyl now claim more lives every year than prescription painkillers or heroin.

Doctor shakes hand with pharmacist

The crisis began with pharma companies pushing addictive and potentially lethal painkillers. Pharma companies urged doctors to prescribe the pills, promising doctors that the medicines were safe. Pharma companies also promoted their painkillers with direct-to-consumer advertising. (Almost no other countries allow pharmaceutical companies to advertise their products directly to consumers).

Almost immediately, patients began experiencing habit-forming symptoms from their painkillers. These led to overdoses. A little over 1,000 people died from prescription drug overdoses in 1999. But in 2006, more than 4,000 people lost their lives to drugs that were supposed to be effective medicines, not lethal poisons.

Fast forward to today and tens of thousands of people die from opiate overdoses every year.

Curbing the Addiction Crisis—Why Treatment is Crucial

When the tobacco industries were being sued in the 1990s, much of the money won from those court cases ended up going to other, unrelated endeavors. If a state won a settlement against Big Tobacco, that state wouldn’t spend the money on helping those in the state affected by tobacco. The state would spend the money on something else.

Take a look at some of the actual numbers on this:

  • In the last two decades, states have only spent about two percent of their tobacco-generated revenue on tobacco prevention and cessation efforts.
  • In twenty years, states received $453.4 billion in tobacco revenue. However, only $11.8 billion has gone to tobacco prevention.

It is of the utmost importance that victories against Big Pharma lead to pharma settlements paying for treatment programs within states most affected by the addiction crisis. Angela Mallette, a recovering addict and the director of a law enforcement diversion program designed to help addicts, commented on the need to use lawsuit settlements correctly. “A huge concern is making sure that this money goes to help the people that have been affected by this crisis and continue to be affected by this crisis.”

And she’s right. There are two, key areas that states need to spend pharma settlement dollars on:

  • Long-term addiction treatment programs. Our addiction epidemic has been ongoing for 20 years, with six times as many people dying now as compared to fatality numbers at the beginning of the epidemic. This problem will never be resolved until we help those who are addicted get clean.
  • Drug abuse prevention programs. Outreach programs for at-risk youth. Educational programs. Counseling for people in recovery. Helping law enforcement crackdown on drug crime. Offering pain relief alternatives rather than continuing to push addictive painkillers. These are all examples of drug abuse prevention.
Doctor talks with an addict about treatment

Both treatment and prevention efforts cannot be implemented without funding. Now that pharma companies are finally being held accountable for their crimes, individuals, counties, cities, states, and even federal institutions have to make sure that settlement money is spent in a way that reverses the addiction epidemic.

An excellent example of this principle being enforced is in West Virginia, where Attorney General Patrick Morrisey recently announced a $37 million settlement with the drug distributor McKesson. That settlement will go to addiction treatment and prevention efforts. (This was also discussed in the USA Today article cited earlier.)

In Oklahoma, a $270 million opioid settlement from Purdue Pharma is not being treated as it should. Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt signed a law requiring funds from state lawsuits settled by the attorney general’s office to go directly into the state treasury. Because of that, $200 million of the $270 million settlement is going to addiction research at Oklahoma State University, not towards treating those currently addicted in Oklahoma.

Treatment Helps People Overcome Addiction

Overcoming our country’s drug problem means helping those who currently suffer from addiction. As it stands right now, most addicts never get the help that they need. We can change that by using funding from pharma lawsuits to ensure that treatment is made available for those who need it. Future generations depend on us correctly addressing, reducing, and eliminating this drug problem.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, MCAP, RAS



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.