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Justice Department announces it will back lawsuits against opioid companies

Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during a press conference at the Department of Justice in Washington, DC on February 27, 2018. Sessions introduced the Prescription Interdiction Litigation task force (PILS), aimed to combat the opiod epidemic. (Photo by Toya Sarno Jordan/Getty Images)

As part of an effort to tackle the U.S. opioid epidemic, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Tuesday that the Department of Justice will file a statement of interest supporting local entities going after drug makers in court, Fox News reported.

Who's involved?

Hundreds of cases filed by cities and counties across the nation have been consolidated into what the New York Times called a "sprawling, high-stakes" lawsuit being overseen by a federal judge in Ohio. The plaintiffs are seeking billions from pharmaceutical companies and distributors like Johnson & Johnson, Cardinal Health, and Walgreens.

Now the feds are joining in the fight. At a news conference, Sessions announced that his department is going after "a number of opioid manufacturers and distributors for allegedly using false, deceptive, and unfair marketing of opioid drugs."

Sessions went on to call the opioid crisis a significant drain on federal resources. He said the cost to the federal government has climbed to $1 trillion since 2001 and speculated that in just the next three years it would cost another $500 billion. Estimated expenses to the labor force, health care, and criminal justice systems were outlined in a White House report last year.

"The hard-working taxpayers of this country deserve to be compensated by any whose illegal activity contributed to these costs. And we will go to court to ensure that the American people receive the compensation they deserve," Sessions stated.

Such enormous costs in battling the opioid crisis mean states and municipalities are also feeling the financial strain. Attorneys general from seven states joined Sessions at the news conference, including Mike DeWine of Ohio, who called the DOJ's involvement "a game-changer" and "a real realization of what has been going on."

The lawsuit is aiming for a settlement from the defendants for their alleged role in the opioid crisis, accusing them of misleading marketing and downplaying the addictiveness of powerful prescription painkillers.

How bad is the opioid epidemic?

In 2016, a record 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses — a vast majority of whom took opioids, according to Sessions. A 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the life expectancy of Americans has declined for the second year in a row, and attributes the trend to drug-related deaths.

As part of a bi-partisan budget deal this month, the federal government committed $6 billion over the next two years to fight the epidemic.

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