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Litigation Over America's Opioid Crisis Is Heating Up


Litigation over the opioid crisis is heating up. A verdict in the first state case, Oklahoma, is expected next month. Meanwhile, in Ohio, a federal judge is overseeing litigation brought by more than 2,000 local governments - states, towns, counties - across the country.

Well, we're going to spend these next few minutes with a man who has worked to convince all those governments to sue and who is working now to coordinate their efforts. A recent profile on "60 Minutes" called Mike Moore the unofficial commanding officer of opioid litigation in the U.S. And if his name sounds familiar, might be because he played a similar role two decades ago when he persuaded states to take on big tobacco.

Mike Moore, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MIKE MOORE: Thank you, Mary Louise. Glad to be here.

KELLY: So you represent several of the states that are suing - Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Ohio - also, several of the counties and cities who are litigating. And I wonder - how hard has it been to get all of your different clients, which must have different laws, different aims - how hard has it been to get them all on the same page?

MOORE: Well, it's taken a long time. The defendants in these cases, as you might imagine, are not anxious to go to trial. With the revelation of where all the pills went, you know, that's been in the newspaper and TV recently, there's really nowhere for them to hide. We know what the story is. We know who's at fault. So it's really time for folks to focus on the public health crisis and come together and solve the problem. I mean, litigation is great. But it really is, you know, a tool that is used to try to get the truth out and to try to hold people accountable.

KELLY: You said we know who's at fault.

MOORE: Sure.

KELLY: But when I last interviewed you a couple of years ago, in 2017, you acknowledge there is plenty of blame to go around in the opioid crisis, from doctors who overprescribed to pharmacists who filled out all those prescriptions to the government that failed to regulate and so on. Just make the case as simply as you can, why should the drug companies - manufacturers and distributors - be the ones held accountable above all those other parties?

MOORE: Well, first off, because the manufacturers are the ones who made the most money...

KELLY: And presumably, who can also pay out in a big settlement.

MOORE: Yeah, billions of dollars. And truthfully, the manufacturers probably made less money than the distributors. The distributors really made a mother lode of money. And then the Walgreens, CVSes, Walmarts, Ride Aides - they made a lot of money, too, dispensing these drugs and didn't take the steps that they should have. The Controlled Substance Act is there for a reason. These are controlled substances. And frankly, everybody failed to control the flow of these drugs.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, these companies, as you know - to sum up their defense in a line is that these were controlled substances. These were legal substances sold to legit patients who had prescriptions.

MOORE: They are. But in our country, the law pretty much says you have to tell the truth. And it's clear that Purdue Pharma and the other companies - Johnson & Johnson and others - they didn't tell the truth about the addictive nature of these drugs or what they should be used for. You know, they're fine for long-term cancer pain and those type things. But you're not supposed to get a 60-day supply for a tooth extraction and the like. And that's what they kind of marketed these things for.

KELLY: How big a payout are you looking for to count as a success?

MOORE: You know, I think a better way to say it is - what does it take to start saving lives? You know, how do we get naloxone, you know, the antidote for overdoses, out to everybody that needs it? How do we get buprenorphine and treatment drugs out? How do we get a prevention education program out there to try to reverse the negative statements that were made by these companies years ago?

KELLY: All right. What's that number?

MOORE: Well, that number is going to be in the multi-multi-multibillions of dollars. But we need to do it now. We don't need to do it five years from now.

KELLY: Are the pockets of the opioid manufacturers being targeted in these suits deep enough to make that kind of payout? My impression is they're - they don't have as much money as, say, big tobacco manufacturers who you were suing back in the '90s.

MOORE: Yeah, Purdue Pharma is close to bankruptcy, probably rightfully so. Their OxyContin sales are way down. Sacklers have some money that can be retrieved. Johnson & Johnson is a huge pocket. Then the distributors are big pocketbooks. The Walgreens, the CVS are big pocketbooks, and they all have some responsibility.

KELLY: What about your personal goal out of all this, Mike Moore? And I ask because when you and I spoke before, you talked about how this feels personal to you - that members of your family have overdosed, friends of yours have overdosed.

MOORE: Yep. For me, I really want to do something that makes a difference in saving people's lives.

KELLY: You also said that whatever money might flow to you, you would be would be happy to donate in the...

MOORE: Absolutely.

KELLY: ...Service of public health. Is that still where you stand?

MOORE: Absolutely. You know, I'm doing this for one reason. I don't need to do this anymore. And I'm trying to make this a public crisis rather than just a big lawsuit. This isn't a lawsuit. This is something to try, frankly, to solve a public health epidemic.

KELLY: Lawyer Mike Moore talking there about the efforts, which he is leading, to hold prescription drugmakers and distributors accountable in court for the opioid epidemic.

Thank you.

MOORE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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