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Majority Of Americans Say Drug Companies Should Be Held Responsible For Opioid Crisis

A man uses heroin in a park in New York City in 2017.
A man uses heroin in a park in New York City in 2017.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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A new poll by NPR and Ipsos finds a third of Americans have been touched directly by the deadly opioid epidemic that still kills more than 100 people every day. "One in three have been personally affected in some way, either by knowing someone who has overdosed or by knowing someone with an opioid addiction," said Mallory Newell, lead Ipsos researcher on the survey.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 200,000 Americans have died from prescription opioid overdoses since the addiction crisis began in the late 1990s, after pharmaceutical companies began aggressively marketing highly addictive painkillers.

The survey found that 57% of Americans now want drug companies to pay to help clean up the mess. The issue cuts across partisan and ideological divides. "It's something, no matter your age, your gender, no matter where you live, your party affiliation, that people believe in large numbers," Newell added.

Support is even higher — more than 70% — for making drug companies pay the cost of addiction treatment services and cover the cost of the drug naloxone, used to revive people who've overdosed.

These results reflect a perilous moment for drugmakers and distributors like Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson and McKesson. They're some of the biggest companies in the U.S. and were once among the most trusted. But, speaking in Atlanta at an addiction conference on Tuesday, President Trump spoke of the industry as a pariah.

"We are holding Big Pharma accountable; they should be accountable," he said to applause, pointing to new federal criminal indictments against executives unveiled in New York this week.

Trump shared the stage with Tom Murphy, a state police narcotics investigator from Virginia whose son died in 2017 after using prescription painkillers to treat a hand injury and then spiraling into addiction.

"Twelve days before Christmas, he passed away of a heroin and fentanyl overdose. His name was Matthew Jason Murphy," said Murphy. He called for the stigma experienced by those suffering from addiction to be replaced by compassion and treatment.

Hundreds of lawsuits

The NPR/Ipsos survey found that Americans personally affected in this way by the epidemic are even more eager to see drug companies held accountable. Big Pharma has already been flooded with more than 1,600 civil lawsuits stemming from the opioid crisis.

This week the Justice Department arrested executives who worked for a major prescription drug distributor called Rochester Drug Cooperative — one of the companies that ship large quantities of opioids from manufacturers to local pharmacies.

"It is the first time executives of a pharmaceutical distributor and the distributor itself have been charged with drug trafficking," said Jeff Berman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

At a news conference on Tuesday, he said that one of the company's executives has pleaded guilty and that the firm has itself admitted wrongdoing, agreeing to pay a $20 million fine. Executives allegedly funneled prescription opioid pills to pharmacies that then sold them on the black market.

"This epidemic has been driven by greed," Berman said, making it clear this case reflects a shift by federal prosecutors. "Our office will do everything in its power to bring to justice anyone responsible for unlawfully fueling this opioid epidemic, and that includes executives who illegally distribute drugs from their boardrooms."

Company executives with a firm called Insys Therapeutics are already facing federal criminal charges in Massachusetts relating to their marketing of prescription opioids. Jurors are currently deliberating in that case.

Drug companies contacted by NPR in recent weeks maintain they acted responsibly, marketing opioids appropriately and helping respond to the addiction crisis.

But the NPR/Ipsos survey found that a majority of Americans don't accept that narrative. Seventy percent of those polled said even after companies pay fines and penalties, they should be forced to publicly disclose details of the role they played fueling the epidemic.

"The American public is really looking to hold companies accountable, and they want more transparency to help stop the opioid crisis," said Newell of Ipsos.

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