A federal judge on Tuesday likened the nation's opioid epidemic to the deadly 1918 flu pandemic while noting the drug crisis is "100 percent manmade."
Judge Dan Polster urged participants on all sides of lawsuits against drugmakers and distributors to work toward a common goal of reducing overdose deaths. He said the issue has come to courts because "other branches of government have punted" it.
The judge is overseeing more than 180 lawsuits against drug companies brought by local communities across the country, including those in California, Illinois, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. Municipalities include San Joaquin County in California; Portsmouth, Ohio; and Huntington, West Virginia.
Polster said the goal must be reining in the amount of painkillers available.
"What we've got to do is dramatically reduce the number of pills that are out there, and make sure that the pills that are out there are being used properly," Polster said during a hearing in his Cleveland courtroom. "Because we all know that a whole lot of them have gone walking, with devastating results."
The judge said he believes everyone from drugmakers to doctors to individuals bear some responsibility for the crisis and haven't done enough to stop it.
The government tallied 63,600 overdose drug deaths in 2016, another record. Most of the deaths involved prescription opioids such as OxyContin or Vicodin or related illicit drugs such as heroin and fentanyl. The epidemic is the most widespread and deadly drug crisis in the nation's history.
Hundreds of lawsuits filed by municipal and county governments could end up as part of the consolidated federal case overseen by Polster, but others are not likely to.
Some government bodies, including Ohio and at least nine other states, are suing the industry in state courts. Additionally, most states have joined a multistate investigation of the industry that could end up sparking a settlement or yet more litigation against the industry.
Targets of the lawsuits include drugmakers such as Allergan, Johnson & Johnson, and Purdue Pharma, and the three large drug distribution companies, Amerisource Bergen, Ohio-based Cardinal Health and McKesson. Drug distributors and manufacturers named in these and other lawsuits have said they don't believe litigation is the answer but have pledged to help solve the crisis.
Polster said the nation is running the risk of seeing average U.S. life expectancy diminish three years consecutively thanks to the epidemic, something that hasn't happened since the 1918 flu killed thousands.
"This is 100 percent manmade," Polster said. "I'm pretty ashamed that this has occurred while I've been around."