Prescriptions for opioids skyrocketed in the 1990s as pharmaceutical companies maintained that patients would not become addicted to opioid pain relievers. Healthcare providers prescribed opioids in massive doses, leading to abuse of both prescription and non-prescription opioids. In 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), over 10 million people misused prescription opioids alone. In 2017, HHS declared a public health emergency related to opioid use in the United States. It is estimated that opioids have led to over 500,000 deaths of Americans over the past twenty years.

States’ Attorney Generals File Lawsuits

Lawsuits have been brought against drug manufacturers, pharmacies, and distributors alleging that each entity played a role in creating and fueling the opioid epidemic. More than 3,000 lawsuits have been filed by state and local governments, Native American tribes, unions, and hospitals. The lawsuits, which claim that defendants created a public nuisance by manufacturing and distributing opioids, are seeking to recoup billions of dollars that have been spent to handle the opioid epidemic. While states have discretion in determining how to use the proceeds, most of these funds will be allocated to treatment programs and health care.

Four of the Largest Opioid Companies Agree to $26 Billion Settlement

In July 2021, a coalition of attorney generals announced that they reached a settlement with Johnson & Johnson, one of the largest manufacturers of opioids and three major distributors- Amerisource Bergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson. Forty-six states and approximately 90% of eligible local governments agreed to be part of the deal. The settlement addresses thousands of civil lawsuits initiated by local and state governments against these defendants starting back in 2014.

The settlement, in the amount of $26 billion, resolves claims related to the opioid crisis and includes a commitment to make significant modifications in business practices to provide greater oversight over the distribution of opioids. The amount distributed to each state was determined by a formula that assesses the impact of the crisis in that particular state, which takes into account the number of deaths from opioids, the quantity of opioids in the state, the percentage of residents with substance use addiction, and the population of the state. While the companies who settled these claims did not acknowledge liability, the lawsuits themselves uncovered certain company procedures that contributed to the growth of the opioid epidemic. For example, it was revealed that certain manufacturers continued to send large quantities of pills to small rural areas despite knowing that the opioids were being rerouted to the black market.

Purdue Pharma Agrees to Settlement

In March 2022, Purdue Pharma, the manufacturers of the popular opioid, OxyContin, agreed to a final settlement with several U.S. states. The deal, worth $6 billion, was reached with eight states and the District of Columbia, after a prior settlement offer for $4.5 billion was rejected by the plaintiffs. States and local governments have alleged that Purdue Pharma heightened the opioid addiction crisis by aggressively selling and marketing OxyContin despite its knowledge that the drugs are highly addictive.