MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The fight against the opioid epidemic is unfolding outside Washington, too. Ten states are suing opioid makers - so are a number of cities and counties. On many of these lawsuits, you'll find the fingerprints of one man, a lawyer named Mike Moore. When Moore was attorney general of Mississippi two decades ago, he persuaded states to take on Big Tobacco, and they won the biggest civil settlement in U.S. history. Now Mike Moore wants to lead States in a new fight against the opioid industry. And this time, he told me the battle is personal.
MIKE MOORE: I've had lots of various family members and friends of mine that have overdosed. And many that I know have died just as others have. When you have the toll of anywhere from 35 to 50,000 people died in the last few years every year, everybody's going to know somebody that died. And unfortunately, it's - you know, it's not some guy in the back hallways or back roads. It's your neighbor, you know? It's a 19-year-old son. It's a 35-year-old parent of three children. It's a very, very bad epidemic.
KELLY: Of the states that have not sued - have decided not to file suit or may be in the process of investigating, what are the questions you hear from them?
MOORE: Well, this is not an easy case. You know, what I hear sometimes is, well, these are tough cases. Mike, we're going to wait and see what happens. But unfortunately for me and for many others on our team, this is not something you can wait and see what happens. There are 150 people who will die a day from an overdose from opioids. I'm trying to focus the country's attention on this problem and do something about it soon.
KELLY: Well, let me push back at you with some of the points that pharmaceutical companies make.
KELLY: We've reached out to several other companies being sued, asked for comment. They all got back to us, the ones that we reached out to. Among them, Purdue Pharma which is maybe the most prominent target so far of these lawsuits - they make OxyContin. They say they're trying to balance what they agree is a public health crisis - balance that with patient access to FDA-approved medicine. In other words, federal regulators have approved these drugs. Does Purdue have a point?
MOORE: Well, Purdue is the culprit. What they did was they lied about the addictive nature of these drugs just like the tobacco industry did. Purdue said that there was less than 1 percent chance of getting addicted by taking their OxyContin under a doctor's care.
KELLY: Purdue, of course, would argue that they didn't lie. But setting aside that issue, there is the practical issue. They also in their statement to us said their products only account for 2 percent of the total opioid prescriptions out there. So will going after them, should you succeed - will that make much of a difference in this crisis?
MOORE: Yeah. That's really not exactly the truth. The truth is they're the ones that opened up the opioid market. There was no huge opioid market before the Sackler family and Purdue went out there and advertised and marketed OxyContin. What happened was they were so successful then the other drug companies jumped in. They thought the water was fine, so they all jumped in and did the very same thing. So yeah, Purdue Pharma can say whatever they want in 2017 after the horse is out of the barn and the nation is addicted to opioids. But the problem is they've caused hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of damage and many, many lives.
KELLY: Another point to put to you which is if the nation is directed to opioids, they had to get them somehow. And that was through doctors and pharmacists prescribing these drugs. Why just sue the manufacturers? Why not sue doctors who've overprescribed?
MOORE: Well, there are a lot of doctors who've actually gone to prison for what they've done. There's a lot of good doctors out there, though, that were misled. I've talked to doctors who've told me, Mike, we would have never put our patients on these drugs unless we thought they were safe. And where did they get that information?
KELLY: Yeah. I mean, it seems from a legal point of view, this is more complicated in a way than the tobacco litigation. You've got middlemen involved - doctors, pharmacists.
MOORE: Oh, it's - there's a lot of blame to go around, if you will. You can blame the FDA if you want. Were they asleep at the switch while this was happening? You can blame some doctors if you'd like to say that, you know, maybe they were more interested in pleasing their patients than they were, you know, cutting back on these prescriptions. You can blame the distributors for not stopping suspicious orders. But I think you have to put some of the blame on the drug manufacturers. I think you also have to put some of the blame on some of the pharmacists and drugstores around who could have been a little bit more diligent in what they did. You can blame our government for weakening our laws.
So yeah, there's a lot of blame. The nation needs to focus on it. And all I say is, government, if you've got $50 or $60 billion you want to put into treatment right now, do it. Drug companies, you need to pay your fair share - drug distributors, the same way. We need to solve the problem. And I bet you, all of us in this country could sit down today, figure out how to do it. And that's really what all these cases are about is to focus the nation's attention on solving the opioid epidemic.
KELLY: If this goes your way, a lot of lawyers stand to make a pile of money. What do you say to critics who ask if this is about plaintiffs' lawyers looking for a big settlement?
MOORE: Well, for myself - I can tell you right now. I would be satisfied not making a single penny. If we could sit down at the table right now and figure out a solution to this problem and stop people from overdosing, stop people from dying, Then I would be absolutely as happy as I could ever be.
KELLY: You would have your fees or put all the - any money that was recovered toward treatment programs?
MOORE: I can tell you right now unequivocally if people will sit down tomorrow in a room and help solve this problem, I will absolutely do that.
KELLY: That's Mike Moore. He was Mississippi's attorney general for 16 years, the first state attorney general to sue tobacco companies back in the '90s. Now he's trained his sights on pharmaceutical companies, arguing they have helped fuel the opioid epidemic. Mike Moore, thanks so much.
MOORE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.