NEW ORLEANS —A number of class-action lawsuits have been filed against pharmaceutical companies in recent years, alleging they created a public nuisance in the form of widespread opioid addiction, much like cigarette makers have been blamed for cancer caused by tobacco use.
A prominent Louisiana defense attorney, however, says it's a mistake to compare the two.
"I am not convinced that the public health issues related to excessive use, or misuse, of opioids parallel those raised by trial lawyers through the litigation against tobacco companies,” Marta Ann Schnabel, managing director of O'Bryon & Schnabel, recently told the Louisiana Record. “Tobacco companies hid the addictive nature of cigarettes for decades. Cigarettes were readily available to the public for years without warnings and were not marketed for any legitimate medicinal purposes. Opioids, on the other hand, have always been controlled substances, which could not legally be obtained without orders from a physician."
Burton LeBlanc, shareholder and attorney for the Louisiana office of Baron & Budd, recently spoke about the opioid epidemic at a seminar hosted by the American Association for Justice in St. Louis. His office is actively pursuing litigation against three Fortune 500 pharmaceutical distributors – Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and McKesson Corp.
The suits allege that the pharmaceutical companies failed to regulate orders of prescription opiates, which played a role in creating the national opioid addiction crisis.
Schnabel, who is also president-elect for the National Association of Defense Counsel's Louisiana chapter and has served on the group's medical liability committee, believes that litigation such as this will only serve to line the pockets of the lawyers who file the lawsuits.
“Opioids were originally developed to aid a patient suffering from intractable pain," she said. " Protracted litigation against drug manufacturers and distributors may ultimately have a positive impact in reducing the availability of opioids, but such suits generally have the more immediate result of enriching the lawyers who bring them.”
Schnabel thinks the recent lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies may mean patients in great pain will have a harder time finding relief.
“An unintended consequence may well be that many people who are in pain will have less access to effective treatment," she said. "More direct mechanisms for curbing the use of opioids are likely to be public education, education of physicians and other prescribers, better access to addiction treatment, and more direct regulation of drug companies and prescribers.”