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Cities, states, and other jurisdictions are now treating opioid manufacturers and distributors like Big Tobacco.

It is impossible to talk about the causes of America’s opioid epidemic without pointing to the manufacturers and distributors that marketed and proliferated dangerous opioid painkillers. Yet for much of the crisis, these multibillion-dollar opioid companies have avoided much in the way of serious accountability.

Until, perhaps, now.

This week, New York City made headlines for its announcement that it had filed a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors. But New York City is actually joining late on a bipartisan movement that really took off in 2017, as cities, states, and other jurisdictions filed lawsuits against opioid companies. At this point, advocates say there are at least dozens and possibly hundreds of these lawsuits in play, with more to come.

There are two main legal arguments behind these cases, one for opioid manufacturers and another mainly for opioid distributors:

  1. Starting in the mid-1990s, opioid manufacturers unleashed a misleading marketing push underplaying the risks of opioid painkillers and exaggerating the drugs’ benefits. This, the lawsuits argue, adds up to false advertising with deadly consequences — by encouraging doctors to overprescribe the pills and getting patients to think the pills were safe and effective.
  2. Meanwhile, opioid distributors supplied a ton of these pills, even when they should have known they were going to people who were misusing the drugs. This is backed by data that shows that in some counties and states, there were more prescribed bottles of painkillers than there were people — a sign that something was going very wrong. Federal and some state laws require distributors to keep an eye on the supply chain to ensure their products aren’t falling in the wrong hands. Letting these drugs proliferate, the lawsuits say, violates those laws.

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