LITTLE ROCK – The manufacturers of prescription painkillers are facing a barrage of lawsuits from state and local governments across the United States. Hardly any family in the country has been untouched by the epidemic that has caused turmoil for individuals and families everywhere - even here in our own community.

The Arkansas lawsuits allege that the pharmaceutical companies used deceptive trade practices to downplay the potentially lethal effects of painkillers. As a result, greater numbers of people are addicted to painkillers, known as opioids, and greater numbers are dying from overdoses.

In 2016, there were 401 fatal drug overdoses in Arkansas. That is four times the number of Arkansans who died from drug overdoses in 1999.

According to the lawsuit filed by the state attorney general last week, 236 million doses of opioids were prescribed in Arkansas in 2016. That equals about 78 pills for every resident in Arkansas. In a few rural counties the number of pills sold per capita was much higher, for example, in five counties the average was 150 pills sold per person.

The dramatic rise in abuse of painkillers is ruining families and straining the resources of law enforcement agencies and treatment programs. It is the cause of increased visits to hospital emergency rooms, and painkillers are showing up more frequently in newborn babies. There are effective antidotes that if applied in time can save the life of a person who is overdosing, but they are expensive.

The attorney general’s lawsuit alleges that the pharmaceutical companies committed Medicaid fraud, claiming that Medicaid would not have paid reimbursements for the prescription painkillers if the companies had been truthful about the drugs’ effectiveness in managing pain over the long term.

Traditionally, the painkillers were prescribed for acute pain for short periods. In recent years, according to the lawsuits, the drug companies have marketed the painkillers for chronic, long-term pain management, which results in addiction and other serious side effects.

This has increased the market for painkillers dramatically, and opioids are now the most commonly prescribed drug in the United States, according to the lawsuit.

A coalition of Arkansas cities and counties also has filed a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and sell opioids. On its own, Pulaski County has filed a similar lawsuit.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that nationally 42,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2016.

In 2011 the legislature created the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, and has updated it several times since. Last year lawmakers approved Act 820, which requires physicians to consult with the program before prescribing opioids and addictive drugs.

Causing particular alarm is the growing presence of fentanyl, because it is so dangerous and has caused so many fatal overdoses. Abuse of fentanyl caused 20,000 deaths nationwide in 2016, and because of its lethal nature there is now an ongoing debate about the extent to which lawmakers should increase penalties for its distribution. Some elected officials and advocacy groups support the death penalty for large-scale dealers of fentanyl.

Nationwide, hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against the drug manufacturers. The defendants include some of the most well known and widely traded companies on the stock market.

I am proud to have sponsored naloxone legislation that has been cited as helping save lives of people who have overdosed on opiates and faced life threatening conditions. As these lawsuits develop, we must all remember that underneath the legal arguments and finger pointing are human beings that have had their lives destroyed by drug addiction. Lawsuits cannot restore the dignity people have lost in the grips of addiction, but we hope that holding people accountable may help our society do better in the future.

It is an honor and privilege to serve you. I invite you to contact me anytime with your opinions, views and concerns at jason.rapert@senate.ar.gov. I would like to hear from you about your views on the national debt and what concerns you may have locally as well.

Senator Rapert is chairman of the Arkansas Senate Insurance & Commerce Committee, co-chair of the ALC Higher Education Committee, president of the National Council of Insurance Legislators and represents the city of Conway, Faulkner County and a portion of Perry County in Senate District 35