Cuomo proposes suing opioid manufacturers but offers few details
In his State of the State address, Gov. Andrew Cuomo took aim at the pharmaceutical industry, noting how life expectancy decreased in 2017 for the second year in a row due to an uptick in drug overdoses, particularly opioid-related abuse.
“Unscrupulous distributors developed a $400 billion industry selling opioids, and they were conveniently blind to the consequences of their actions,” Cuomo said. “We will sue them, and we will stop the spread of opioids because too many innocent lives have been lost and the time for action is now, before we lose another single life.”
But he did not explain any legal strategy or what other action, if any, New York will take to stop opioid addiction.
That left other state officials without much information to weigh in on, although some were eager to show their support for holding manufacturers accountable.
In a written statement provided to City & State, a spokesperson for Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said that his office “has been leading the investigation of the opioid industry.” In September, Schneiderman announced at a press conference that 41 state attorneys general had served subpoenas to opioid manufacturers and requested documents from distributors.
“Working with the Governor, we will take enforcement actions against opioid distributors that breached their legal duties to monitor, detect, and report suspicious orders of prescription opioids,” the spokesperson wrote in the statement.
Bill Hammond, director of health policy at the Empire Center, a conservative think tank, said that while he had not yet had time to study the governor’s proposal, and could not speak to how successful possible lawsuits against manufacturers would be, he could see the “big picture” argument these cases would make.
“I think it's been pretty well-established, at least in the early days, these drugs were pitched to providers as being safe – that they weren't going to cause addiction – and that turned out not to be true, as experience later showed,” he said. “So whether you can demonstrate that the people, at the time that they were making those claims, whether they knew they were false or should have known they were false, that would seem to be the crux of the case.”
Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, said in a statement to City & State that he was dedicated to working on this crisis and holding pharmaceutical companies accountable for “inappropriate opioid marketing and distribution.” But he also seemed unclear as to what Cuomo’s proposal to sue manufacturers would entail.
“I look forward to seeing the specifics of Governor Cuomo’s proposals and to working with the Governor, the Attorney General, and the Senate to craft appropriate, enforceable legislation to combat the opioid epidemic,” he wrote in an email to City & State.
The state Legislature has already made combating the opioid crisis a priority, with the state Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Abuse created to examine addiction and produce bills to combat the opioid crisis. In the 2017 legislative session, the Senate passed bills which would have increased penalties on dealers, but failed to pass in the Assembly, which prefers a less punitive approach.
Despite differences in approach between the Senate and Assembly, state Sen. Kemp Hannon, chairman of the Senate Health Committee, said in a November interview with City & State that addressing the crisis remained a priority for the Legislature.
“It still is the major concern in every neighborhood in the state, from Niagara to Riverhead,” he said.
Cuomo’s desire to hold opioid manufacturers accountable may be complicated by ties between drug companies and members of the state Legislature. The USA Today Network reported in 2016 that the Pain Care Forum, a group which includes drug manufacturers and allied advocacy groups, had given $1.2 million to the state Senate Republican Campaign Committee and $560,000 to its Democratic counterpart between 2006 and 2015, and given $53,000 to Hannon and $22,000 to Assembly Democratic Majority Leader Joe Morelle.
When asked whether the donations would affect his approach to crafting policy on the crisis, Hannon pushed back by discussing his legislative record, which includes restricting the number of opioid pills a doctor may prescribe, working to educate doctors on abuse, expanding access to naloxone and helping to found the Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Abuse.
“Suing the drug manufacturers who falsely portrayed opioids as effective and non addictive would help repay for the State and local expenses,” Hannon wrote in a statement to City & State. “Most importantly, it would allow NY to continue the fight against drug addiction.”
Whether lawmakers’ ties to opioid manufacturers will affect their support for Cuomo’s plan to sue depends upon what the governor’s plan actually entails.
“Big corporations own Washington," Cuomo said to applause as he proposed confronting drug companies, "but they don’t own New York.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a statement to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The quote was provided by his spokesperson.