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Vernon News

THOMPSON: Canada needs to hold big pharma to account for opioid epidemic

May 20, 2024 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


The opioid epidemic has been around longer than any of us might like to admit. In fact, we should recognize that it is a pandemic, tormenting individuals and families for more than three decades. This fight to save people will likely go on for decades more.

I hope that Canada does better than the U.S. in getting drugmakers and the various players in the supply chain that pumped pills into our communities to pay fully for their actions. Whatever and whenever the money comes, I hope its use is more transparent and purposeful than what Americans are doing.

More than two years ago - in a crazy-quilt of lawsuits - drugmakers like Johnson & Johnson and drug wholesalers like AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson, paid $21 Billion in restitution. The money went - not to individuals and families who suffered most from opioids - but to state and local governments.

Purdue Pharma, manufacturer of OxyContin, and owners, the Sackler family, had to pay $6 Billion, and retailers like Walgreens, Wal-Mart, Kroger, among others, raised the total settlement to $50 Billion over 20 years. The U.S. is in its third year of payments.

Now, to be sure $50 Billion is no small sum…that’s twice as much as NASA’s annual budget and five times more than the entire NBA season’s revenues. Still, it’s a fraction - a small fraction - of what the companies made over the past 30-plus years…and again, meted out to government folks who decide who gets what over a 20-year span.

Most of the settlements stipulate that states and counties must spend 85 percent of the money they receive on addiction treatment and prevention. But how those government officials in states and counties large and small define “addiction treatment and prevention” often depends on politics and self-interest.

What you end up with ranges from opening a treatment site in a town - a good thing - to buying new police cruisers for a county - less of a good thing.

The money in the U.S. will be spent, but whether the money is spent effectively and equitably, is a toss-up at best. This is a persistent and complex addiction issue that affects individuals and communities.

There are heated debates on everything from scientific research and social services and politics and criminal justice, and on and on. Even families who lost sons and daughter, mothers and fathers, don’t always agree on where the money should go.

Only a dozen states out of 50 have committed to detailed public reporting of their spending. My experience with governments, corporations - or just about any other entity - is that a lack of transparency opens up way too much leeway for folks to do the wrong thing.

Do we really want to trust the companies paying out the money to keep track of where it goes? They don’t care, it’s already on the books and amounts to a bad tip on your dinner bill, with Johnson & Johnson paying $5 Billion over nine years, even though annual sales last year were $95 Billion.

So, Americans are left with trusting governments large and small to do the right thing. Already in counties in states from Alabama to Michigan and North Carolina to Colorado, sheriff’s have bought new police cruisers, weapons, flak jackets, uniforms, even a helicopter.

The sad truth is, even if every cent of the $50 Billion went to treating and preventing addiction, it would barely make a dent in the problem. That’s why hundreds of thousands of folks have died, and those numbers won’t drop very much in the decades to come.

The only thing that can change that dismal outcome - more of the same - is that people show up at local county council meetings and state legislatures and demand proof of where the money is going. It seems terribly wrong that money set aside to help those addicted to opioids, goes to those policing them.

There’s more than 17 years to get this right, but will Americans simply decide it’s too much work? Like I say, I hope Canada does better. But I’m not overly optimistic. First of all, the money settlements in Canada are much smaller, ridiculously smaller.

A couple years ago, Canada’s provincial, territorial and Federal governments settled with the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma Canada for just $150 Million Canadian for OxyContin deaths.

There should be a lot more money paid by drugmakers, wholesalers and retailers. The money is there, these companies are all tremendously profitable, wealthy by any standard. Canadians need to demand more, and in this case more is definitely better.

Then, Canadians need to ensure that any money in settlements goes where it will do the most good. If a new police cruiser is needed somewhere, find the budget elsewhere. The opioid settlement money isn’t a political slush fund.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.


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