Opinion

The Charleston Gazette: What do pill sellers have to hide?

From The Charleston Gazette Editorial Page:

For years, painkiller pill addiction has tainted West Virginia worse than any other state, destroying thousands of lives.

This state repeatedly has the nation’s worst rate of drug overdose deaths. West Virginians average 19 painkiller prescriptions each per year, America’s highest rate. Endless accounts of personal tragedy have emerged. A documentary film about Mingo County described teenage girls prostituting themselves for dope money, and featured a 23-year-old lamenting that half of his high school classmates had died. A report last fall said 550 West Virginia coal miners lost their job certificates because they failed drug tests.

Former Attorney General Darrell McGraw sued Purdue Pharma for flooding the state with a tidal wave of oxycontin pills to supply addicts. He won $10 million damages for West Virginia. Then McGraw took similar action against 11 other pharmaceutical firms. The cases remain pending — even though Republican Patrick Morrisey, a former pharmaceutical lobbyist, won the attorney general post.

Now, significantly, the 11 drug companies refuse to tell West Virginians how many pain pills they funnel into the state. Their high-paid lawyers insist that this information is a “trade secret.”

However, we can’t think of any reason to hide the shipment volume, except to prevent the public from perceiving the distributors’ motives.

If shipments merely equal the normal needs of the state’s aging population, it would imply that drug firms are serving a standard business role. But what if pills have flowed into West Virginia out of proportion to the population and medical need?

As Statehouse reporter Eric Eyre outlined Sunday, two state agencies joined the original McGraw suit and want to know the volume of pill shipments. But a defense lawyer from Charleston’s Jackson Kelly firm resisted, saying the agencies just want to “start playing to the court of public opinion.”

Considering the terrible damage that pill addiction does to West Virginia, the court of public opinion has a vital stake in this information.

In response, an attorney for the two state agencies said the volume of pill shipments is simply “garden variety” information, and public knowledge wouldn’t damage corporate secrets.

Prescription drug addiction is literally killing people, and damaging families and communities. The state must try every possible way to reduce this toll — and one way is to learn whether pharmaceutical firms are pouring too many pain pills into West Virginia.

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