HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The City of Hattiesburg is the first municipality in Mississippi to take a stand against major pharmaceutical companies for their role in the opioid epidemic.
Council members voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a resolution authorizing the city to contract a team of attorneys to file a lawsuit against drug manufacturers and wholesale distributors. According to the city, the companies in question control 85% of the market for prescription opioids and profited from the opioid epidemic.
"This is a significant public health issue and we as policy makers, we as leaders, we take a look at our community, we realize these problems are not going to get any better without intervention," said Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker. "That's why we are taking this step, because we do believe people should be held accountable for letting this problem go on for as long as it has."
According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least two opioid prescriptions were dispensed for every man, woman and child in Forrest County during 2016. Opioid abuse is the leading cause of death for those under 50, and researchers estimate the total economic burden of the prescription opioid epidemic at $78.5 billion.
The city will be in contract with McHugh Fuller Law Group, PLLC, to pursue "all civil remedies against those in the chain and distribution of prescription opiates responsible for the opioid epidemic which is plaguing the City of Hattiesburg."
James Moore has been a local advocate for increasing awareness about drug abuse and addiction since losing his son, Jeffrey, to an overdose in 2015.
"Until you have lost a child, you can not comprehend what being in this situation is like," said Moore.
Moore calls the city "courageous" for their decision to take legal action, something he said he expects to see more and more as communities learn the impact the drug companies have played in the epidemic.
"They've made not millions, or hundred of millions, they've made billions of dollars after they knew these drugs were highly addictive and continued to market them as addictive," said Moore.
"They had many, many times to realize there were huge problems happening," Moore said. "All they had to do was stop shipment and open up their own investigation, or alert the DEA that we have massive quantities of drugs going to the same location, that would have happened thirty years ago."
Officials said no taxpayer dollars will be used. If the litigation is successful, attorneys will be paid with funds that come out of the lawsuit.
Mayor Toby Barker said if litigation is successful, funds awarded to the city will be used to employ strategies and interventions to curb abuse through research-based education and programming.
"The rest, we will focus in on education, on heightening our public safety capacity and also treatment," said Barker. "That's a significant gap for long-term recovery and sobriety for a lot of people and that's kind of the biggest gap right now in our healthcare sector, is not having any long-term solution for those in recovery."