Citing Infamous Big Tobacco Hearing, Sanders Wants Drug CEOs to Testify on Opioid Crisis

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Citing Infamous Big Tobacco Hearing, Sanders Wants Drug CEOs to Testify on Opioid Crisis

Demanding an investigation by lawmakers, Sanders notes, "this epidemic has not only cost us hundreds of thousands of lives, but has also cost federal, state, and local governments hundreds of billions of dollars."

big tobacco execs

Big Tobacco executives testified before Congress in 1994, declaring they did not believe cigarettes were harmful to people's health. Their testimony was derided by much of the American public and became a turning point in the battle against the lobbying power of the cigarette industry. (Photo: Ray Lustig/Getty Images)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is calling for pharmaceutical industry executives to testify in the Senate and for lawmakers to investigate the role manufacturers and distributors have played in fueling the national opioid crisis.

"It is time for the United States Congress to investigate this crisis, to learn what the drug companies knew about these products, and to hold them accountable."
—Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

"This epidemic has not only cost us hundreds of thousands of lives, but has also cost federal, state, and local governments hundreds of billions of dollars for healthcare, law enforcement, and reduced productivity," Sanders wrote in a letter (pdf) to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, on Monday.

While President Donald Trump continues to fail on his promise to seriously prioritize the issue of opioid addiction, the letter declares, "It is time for the United States Congress to investigate this crisis, to learn what the drug companies knew about these products, and to hold them accountable in helping communities all over this country address this deadly and expensive crisis," emphasizing the HELP Committee "should be at the forefront of investigating all the causes that led to this epidemic."

More than 63,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2016 alone, and the majority of those deaths were tied to opioid use, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (and recent research has shown the official count may be far lower than the actual death toll). While the HELP Committee has held multiple hearings in response to the crisis—with another scheduled for Thursday—none have addressed the culpability of prescription drug companies, particularly with regard to marketing practices and communicating risks to doctors.

"This crisis did not happen in a vacuum. Thanks to the work of many investigative journalists, we know that pharmaceutical companies lied about the addictive impacts of the drugs. In other words, they knew how dangerous these products were, but refused to tell doctors and patients," the letter continues, pointing to a series of damning reports that have been published in recent years. "The public needs to know whether or not the industry's marketing practices were complicit in creating this crisis."

Sanders' letter recounts when tobacco industry executives testified in front of a House subcommittee in 1994, highlighting that during the hearing, lawmakers "had the courage to demand" that those testifying "tell the American people what they knew and when they knew that tobacco was a major health hazard, and had killed millions of people." Noting that those hearings "led to real change," the senator demands lawmakers "summon that courage again" to bring Big Pharma executives to the Senate.

While more than 100 states and municipalities have filed lawsuits and received settlements from opioid producers and distributors, which the letter acknowledges, the senator emphasizes that it's "not nearly enough" to cover the costs of crisis, declaring "the states cannot do it alone."

The letter also notes that Sanders plans to "introduce legislation to hold these companies accountable for the destruction they have caused," which he says would "prohibit illegal marketing and distribution practices with respect to opioids" and require drug companies to "reimburse the economic impact of their products."

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