Makers and sellers of prescription painkillers will soon begin paying out billions of dollars to settle lawsuits that have accused them of fueling the opioid epidemic. Most recently, more than 40 states have agreed to accept $26 billion from Johnson & Johnson and three big drug distributors, to be paid out over 18 years. It’s a considerable sum – except when measured against more than half a million lives lost this century to opioid overdose, or the tens of billions that state, local and tribal governments spend each year to address the painkiller-heroin-fentanyl scourge.
This money, and billions more from other lawsuits, should be applied to preventing and treating addiction. The task requires a dedicated fund, and a focus on opioid-use disorder. States shouldn’t divert the cash to plug holes in their budgets, as they have with many of the billions they’ve received from tobacco litigation. And it is not enough to sustain current substance use disorder programs; they must be improved and expanded.