Other Views: Opioid Peddlers Get a Free Pass, But the Fight Is Not Over


No amount of money can bring back the half million Americans who have died as a result of the opioid epidemic. But the proposed settlements by the corporations that helped fuel the crisis make a mockery of even limited accountability.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson is right to object to any agreement that would deny justice and shortchange Washington communities ravaged by death and addiction. It may ultimately be a lost cause, but it’s a fight worth fighting.

In the case of OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, the battle is all but over after 95% of the company’s creditors — including governments and individuals — voted last month to approve its bankruptcy plan. The move would settle thousands of lawsuits brought against Purdue and its billionaire owners in the Sackler family.

Ferguson joined eight other states’ attorneys general in objecting to the proposal, which also drew opposition from the U.S. Department of Justice, but their efforts seem unlikely to prevail. Judge Robert Drain of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York is expected to sign off on the deal this month.

Under the plan, the company would dissolve, and its assets rolled into trusts run on behalf of the plaintiffs, who have long alleged Purdue and its owners aggressively marketed prescription opioids while playing down the risk of abuse and potential for overdose.

The Sacklers would pay at least $4.5 billion from personal funds over nine years, and the company would make millions of documents public, including privileged communications. These records may give a fuller account of Purdue’s misdeeds, but it will be cold comfort for the victims of opioid abuse and their families.

As part of the deal, there will be no admission of wrongdoing by the Sacklers, and they and others will be shielded against any future civil liability related to the opioid crisis. To compound the travesty, even under a conservative investment strategy, the family’s $4.5 billion contribution to the settlement will not make a dent in their current wealth, officials said. If anything, the Sacklers will only grow richer.

Justice may have a better day against other opioid peddlers.

Ferguson recently rejected the state’s part of a $26 billion settlement with drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and with opioid distributors McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen.

Under the deal, the state could receive $527.5 million — $417.9 million from the nation’s three largest drug distribution companies and $109.6 million from Johnson & Johnson — over 18 years.

This is a pitiful amount when you consider that over the last five years, the four corporations involved have funneled a combined $100 billion to shareholders through stock buybacks and dividends, according to an analysis of company filings by Axios.

Going to trial could result in a larger verdict — such as the $465 million ruling against Johnson & Johnson in Oklahoma — and unlike the settlement, any money awarded must be paid in one lump sum.

Washington state’s trial against the opioid distributors is scheduled to begin Sept. 7 in King County Superior Court. The trial against Johnson & Johnson is set to start in January.

Whatever the outcome, it will never restore the lives ruined by the scourge of opioid abuse, but if these companies continue to avoid a true reckoning over their actions, there is little hope they won’t do it again.