Opinion

Tacoma has big work to do before suing Big Pharma

From the Editorial Board

It seems Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson is everywhere lately. His bespectacled countenance pops up in camera frames like a modern-day Zelig, and he leaves more fingerprints than a character from a Dashiell Hammett detective story.

While the presumed Democratic frontrunner for governor in 2020 grabs headlines for challenging President Trump, his hands are on other projects as well.

This week Ferguson hosts a two-day summit on the national opioid drug scourge.

For hard-hit places like Tacoma, it comes not a moment too soon.

New ideas are sorely needed to crack down on rampant prescription painkiller supply and demand. The problem cuts deep in Washington, where 718 people died from opioid overdose in 2015 – more than from car accidents – and where thousands more have spiraled into street heroin addiction.

Ferguson’s summit holds promise for a fruitful dialogue among prosecutors, cops, public health officials and anyone else who cares to come.

One breakout session on Thursday morning should command attention in Tacoma. The topic: How one Washington community on the front lines of the epidemic took the battle to a pharmaceutical company by suing it.

If Tacoma pursues its own litigation against Big Pharma, as it has threatened, city leaders should first complete a high level of due diligence. There’s no point spending taxpayer money to tilt at windmills.

This spring, the Tacoma City Council declared a public health emergency centered on the homelessness crisis. Grasping at slippery solutions, the city proceeded with a first phase to beef up services and enforcement at transient camps; a second phase to open a $3.4 million tent city by the end of June; and an eventual third phase to expand permanent affordable housing options.

Officials are also aware that widespread opioid drug addiction has amplified the problem. They know people from all walks of life have lost their jobs, homes and families after being suckered by the bad bet of legal pain pills or heroin.

In Pierce County, nearly 3,500 opioid abusers sought treatment from 2002 to 2015; imagine all those who didn’t. More than 700 people died from opioid overdose here during the decade starting in 2005. Those who keep living with addiction face a range of medical issues, such as hepatitis C, that strain public health resources.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland announced last month that Tacoma would consider suing opioid manufacturers to “hold them accountable for their decisions and actions.” City Attorney Bill Fosbre confirmed Friday that a contract with a Seattle law firm was being finalized.

If it happens, Tacoma would steal a chapter from another Puget Sound city’s playbook. In January, Everett filed suit against Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxycontin, for alleged gross negligence and other misconduct.

It’s believed to be the first time a U.S. city has sued a drugmaker based on claims that the company ignored clear evidence of criminal distribution.

That Everett went on the offensive shouldn’t be surprising, in light of a bold staffing move it made last summer. It created a new position, director of public health and safety, and appointed Hil Kaman, the city’s lead prosecutor, to fill it. (Kaman will be at this week’s summit, speaking about his city’s salvo against the drug industry.)

Everett also enjoyed the advantage of a newspaper doing heavy lifting for its case. The Los Angeles Times published an investigation of Purdue Pharma in 2016; among other revelations, the Times reported on extensive trafficking of Oxycontin to Snohomish County – and that the company looked the other way while California drug rings illicitly moved pills.

Tacoma’s population is double that of Everett, and we know anecdotally the 253 has more than its share of opioid abuse. But drawing a straight line to drug company wrongdoing is no easy feat. Tacoma’s best legal minds might have a harder time establishing a cogent cause of action.

The closest comparison might be the wave of firearms-industry lawsuits that U.S. cities and states, weary from gun violence, filed in the early 2000s. Those efforts had mixed success, at best.

One expert, a Florida professor who specializes in pharmaceutical regulatory law, told the Times that he views litigation against Big Pharma as “a publicity stunt.”

No doubt the temptation to generate publicity can run strong, especially in a local election year.

Before charging full steam into a lawsuit, Tacoma should track developments in Everett, consult with the state AG’s office and thoroughly vet all the angles with outside attorneys and in-house resources. (It helps that new City Manager Elizabeth Pauli is an experienced city attorney.)

Above all, don’t do it just because it feels good. Any opioid addict in recovery can tell you the folly of such thinking.

TO GO

What: Summit on Reducing the Supply of Illegal Opioids in Washington.

When: Thursday and Friday (June 15 and 16).

Where: University of Washington, Seattle; Kane Hall and Husky Union Building.

Hosted by: Washington Attorney General’s office, State Patrol and Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

For registration or other information: Contact Kelly Richburg at the AG’s office, (206) 389-2130 or kellyr1@atg.wa.gov

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