Goodman: Palm Beach County is right to weigh suing opioid makers. Pam Bondi should, too.

Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay at a workshop on the opioid crisis organized by state officials, May 1. Damon Higgins / The Palm Beach Post

Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay has the right idea in exploring legal action against Big Pharma for its role in the opioid crisis.

Several counties, in New York and California, and states including Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois have sued companies like Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson for spending millions on marketing campaigns that “trivialize the risks of opioids while overstating the benefits of using them for chronic pain,” as Ohio’s lawsuit states.

The Cherokee Nation has sued distributors, including Wal-Mart and Walgreens, along with drug-makers for allegedly making huge profits while “flooding” helpless communities. The city of Everett, Wash., has gone after Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, for allegedly allowing the drug to be funneled into the black market.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi

Florida’s Attorney General, Pam Bondi, also ought to be thinking about suing the drug makers and distributors. Maybe she is. According to a spokesman, she is on the executive committee “of a multi-state investigation involving opioid manufacturers that has been ongoing for some time.”

But if a lawsuit from Florida is in the offing, she’s being awfully quiet about it. Her spokesman, Whitney Ray, offered no further details, not even the identities of the “multi” other states. “Given that this multi-state investigation is ongoing we cannot discuss it further at this time,” he said Wednesday in an email.

(Bondi’s office said Thursday morning that this particular investigation is not related to the nationwide crackdown on addiction treatment centers with 412 arrests on fraud charges, announced by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.)

On Tuesday, the Palm Beach County Commission unanimously backed McKinlay’s request that legal staff review the options for suing the companies whose products have helped fuel a crisis that has left hundreds dead in the county.

Such a lawsuit would resemble the uphill, but ultimately successful, courtroom fight against Big Tobacco. It led, in 1998, to the largest civil-litigation agreement in U.S. history, involving 46 states and six other jurisdictions. Tobacco companies agreed to make annual payments, in perpetuity, to fund health programs and anti-smoking campaigns.

Such action is just the sort of thing we were talking about in our editorial Sunday in the Palm Beach Post, urging that state leaders think bigger about attacking a catastrophe that is growing markedly worse:

Opioids, mainly fentanyl and heroin, have killed 2,664 people in Florida in the first six months of this year – an average of 14 people per day. At this rate, fatal overdoses will outpace last year’s count by 36 percent.

In Palm Beach County alone, overdoses spiked to 311 in the first five months of this year, 20 percent more than the first five months of 2016.

By filing suit, Palm Beach County would be attempting to get back some of the large sums it’s been forced to pay out for additional law enforcement, emergency rescue and health care resources.

Warning: A lawsuit is likely to take years, and may not succeed. In the cases against Big Tobacco, lawyers were able to argue that smokers suffered and died because they used cigarettes as they were designed to be used. It’s different with opioids, as The Atlantic‘s Alena Semuels explains:

Customers are not using the pills as directed, and so it is harder to blame the pharmaceutical companies for the effects of that misuse, according to Lars Noah, a professor of law at the University of Florida. In addition, doctors, not consumers, were the ones targeted by the aggressive marketing campaigns undertaken by pharmaceutical companies, so it can be difficult to link consumer deaths with aggressive marketing.

But Everett, Wash., alleges that Purdue has failed to comply “with clear regulations – as well as a 2007 consent agreement with Washington State – that required them to monitor suspicious orders and notify authorities if they suspected illegal activity.”

“Purdue placed profit over the health and safety of our community, and we can see the tragic results of that decision throughout Everett,” Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson, said in a statement.

Drug giants like Purdue aren’t solely to blame, of course, for the addiction crisis that is plaguing Palm Beach County. But they bear some large portion of responsibility.

The county commissioners have already pledged to execute a list of recommendations to battle the crisis at ground level. If, at the same time, there’s any chance that they can pry some of the money it must spend on this deadly calamity from the companies that are making big profits from drug sales, it should take it.

And so should the state of Florida. Bondi likes to sound tough on this issue. She was a strong backer of the new law, signed by Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday in West Palm Beach, stiffening penalties against drug dealers who carry the deadly synthetic opioids fentanyl and carfentanil. Her position on President Trump’s Opioid and Drug Abuse Commission gives her clout. She ought to use it.