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In late November, a Tennessee judge dismissed a lawsuit that aimed to label Big Pharma manufacturers of prescription opiates as drug dealers. This comes after 47 Middle and East Tennessee counties filed lawsuits against opiate manufacturers and distributors in 2017. Thousands more were filed nationwide against not only manufacturers and distributors but also pharmacies, clinics, and doctors for their contributing roles in the U.S. opioid epidemic.

Tennessee’s Drug Dealer Liability Act lets innocent third parties sue drug dealers for caused damages, and the dismissed lawsuit would have allowed plaintiffs to sue Big Pharma companies as drug dealers. Two of the “innocent third parties” cited in the lawsuit included opioid-addicted babies born in Tennessee’s Campbell County, which was amongst the hardest hit by the opioid epidemic.

The recently dismissed lawsuit alleged that Big Pharma companies lied about the deadly, addictive nature of their opiates, “pushed governments and citizens to demand the right to it for uses it was never intended, and deceived the FDA.” The judge, Eighth Judicial District Circuit Court John D. McAfee, did not consider these allegations before shooting down the lawsuit, claiming it was not a necessary debate because the medications are legal and FDA approved.

The opioid epidemic, which was declared a nationwide public health emergency in October 2017, has impacted Tennessee more than almost any other one of the United States. In 2016, 1,186 of the 42,000 people killed nationwide from opioids were from Tennessee. While the national rate of opioid related deaths hovered at 13.3 deaths per 100,000 persons in 2016, Tennessee’s rate was a staggering 18.1 deaths per 100,000, ranking the state second behind only West Virginia for per capita opioid deaths in the country.

This ranking may be attributed in part to the substantially higher than average number of opioid prescriptions written in Tennessee. While the average U.S. rate was 70 opioid prescriptions per 100 persons in 2015, Tennessee providers wrote over 118 prescriptions per 100 persons. Additionally, Tennessee’s live birth neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) incidence, or the rate of infants born with drug withdrawal symptoms, is more than double the national average.

While this particular ruling will not affect the slew of the other lawsuits against drug makers, individuals in Tennessee who want to see drug makers held accountable were disheartened and shocked to hear the news of the dismissal. Moving forward, many are calling for tougher Big Pharma regulations and a higher level of compassion for Tennessee residents struggling with substance abuse.

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