POLITICS
02/05/2018 18:19 EST | Updated 02/05/2018 20:45 EST

Bernie Sanders Wants Congress To Treat Big Pharma Like Big Tobacco

The senator wants legislation and a hearing to address pharmaceutical companies' role in the opioid epidemic.

Aaron Bernstein / Reuters
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote his fellow Senators that the opioid crisis "did not happen in a vacuum."

WASHINGTON ― Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called Monday for the Senate to hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for any role they’ve played in fueling the opioid epidemic that has spread despair in his state and across the U.S.  

In a letter to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the committee on health, education, labor and pensions, Sanders encouraged him to hold hearings on the matter just as the Senate had once compelled Big Tobacco executives to testify about the deadly hazards of smoking.

“That committee had the courage to demand that the leading executives of the tobacco industry tell the American people what they knew and when they knew that tobacco was addictive … and had killed millions of people,” Sanders wrote. “Though all denied under oath believing tobacco was addictive, we now know they were lying. But the hearing eventually led to real change,” with the Food and Drug Administration regulating tobacco and the rate of smoking in the U.S. at a record low.

Sanders pointed out that the hearing helped states reach massive settlements with the tobacco industry. Several local jurisdictions have already filed lawsuits against painkiller manufacturers. Some have already received settlements. The opioid crisis, Sanders, wrote, “did not happen in a vacuum.” He praised investigative journalists for exposing Big Pharma’s lies about opioid painkillers not being addictive and how small-town pharmacies were flooded with opioids.

“Yet, while some of these companies have made billions each year in profits, not one of them has been held fully accountable for its role in this crisis,” Sanders wrote. “Individual states have received small settlements from companies after taking legal action, but not nearly enough to pay for the costs associated with the opioid epidemic. The states cannot do it alone.”

Sanders sees an economic cost as well as a human cost to the epidemic. And he wants the industry to be liable for the economic costs. Sanders noted in his letter that he plans to introduce legislation that would in part require companies to reimburse communities for the devastating economic consequences that their painkillers have caused.  

In a recent hearing, Alexander focused on state efforts to combat the epidemic. And at a hearing last month, Alexander called just one witness: a reporter who had written a book on the heroin trade and its effect in Ohio. The reporter acknowledged that he had no expertise in making any policy recommendations.

Alexander’s office said it plans to hold more hearings on the opioid epidemic, including one later this week. The office is in the process of considering Sanders’ letter. 

“More and more has come to light about pharmaceutical companies’ knowledge of the addictive properties of opioids,” says Josh Miller-Lewis, a Sanders spokesman. “With that new information, Sen. Sanders believes we must finally hold pharmaceutical companies accountable for their role in the opioid epidemic.”