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Other voices: Opioid crisis not going away

We’re not sure how much good it will do to sue the pharmaceutical industry, but the opioid crisis has become so severe that we must try.

Buncombe County has filed a federal lawsuit naming 23 firms, including five of the largest manufacturers of prescription opioids, the three largest wholesale drug distributors in the U.S., and their related companies. No specific amount of damages is asked.

The lawsuit claims the distributors and manufacturers engaged in “false, deceptive and unfair marketing and/or unlawful diversion of prescription opioids.

“We cannot afford in Buncombe County, or in the country anymore, to just stand back and let this happen,” Commissioner Al Whitesides said. “We gotta speak up. Because we are speaking up and fighting for a lot of people.”

“These drugs are brought in here under false pretenses and they’re robbing us of citizens,” said Commissioner Ellen Frost. They’re robbing us of resources but more importantly, they’re robbing us of citizens — the babies that are in foster care, the paramedics that have to go out for things that they typically would never have to encounter.

“So, I embrace this fight.”

Opioids have important legitimate uses as pain-killers, but they are being misused widely with catastrophic results. Opioids were responsible for more than 33,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Last year’s toll in Buncombe County alone was 42.

And the trend is upward. Buncombe saw more than 200 opioid overdoses in the first eight months of 2017, according to state data. That’s more than twice the number of cases reported for the same period in 2016.

So why sue those who manufacture and distribute opioids? It comes back to Frost’s remark about “false pretenses.” These drugs supposedly are available for legitimate use in fighting pain, but the industry is producing far more than can possibly be used legally.

A lot of the opioids being abused were obtained through legitimate prescriptions. In 20 percent of U.S. counties, the number of opioid prescriptions increased by more than 10 percent from 2010 to 2015, according to CDC data

We need to do a better job of policing providers who overprescribe opioids. But that still does not let the industry off the hook. The companies have to know the quantities they provide, even though they are under federal controls, are excessive.

The suit may or may not produce any money. If it does, that money should be used for treatment of addicts. Effective treatment is the only long-term solution. As much as we stress the importance of not using drugs, there are those who will not pay attention.

Programs such as the pretrial intervention being pushed by Buncombe Sheriff Van Duncan and District Attorney Todd Williams offer some of our best hope. Incarceration doesn’t help cure addiction, whether that addiction be to alcohol or opioids.

Under pretrial intervention, someone accused of a crime involving opioids gets an opportunity to maintain a clean record providing certain conditions are met. In this case, one of the conditions obviously would be to stay off drugs.

The opioid crisis is real, and it’s not going to go away. Yes, we need to enforce the laws. And yes, some people need to be locked away. But for most, treatment is better than incarceration, and that treatment must not be limited to crisis intervention. It must be continuing At the same time, we must hold responsible those physicians who prescribe too freely, those pharmacists who fill questionable prescriptions, and those manufacturers who turn out far too many pills than are needed for legitimate pain control.

— Asheville Citizen-Times

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