Charleston attorney uses Big Tobacco experience to curb opioid epidemic

CHARLESTON, SC (WCBD) — There has been movement in the battle against the opioid epidemic. State and federal governments are getting involved by passing new legislation and filing lawsuits.

In January 2018, Joe Rice, co-founder of Charleston’s Motley-Rice Law Firm was appointed to co-lead the National Prescription Opiate Litigation. The multi-district litigation is coordinated in Ohio, but includes hundreds of cases filed across the country.

One of the reasons Rice got involved? He helped win the Big Tobacco judgement of more than $240 billion back in 1997. Joe Rice was the lead negotiator.

“We were successful in putting together a settlement that has shown to be extremely helpful to public health,” said Rice.

The allegations in the tobacco case were that the companies were using marketing techniques to target young people.

“So, it was a method of marketing that led to addiction that was an intentional addiction,” Rice said.

The result of the Big Tobacco lawsuit put a stop to that. At the time, the smoking rate among high schoolers was around 35%. Now, it’s less than 8%.

“But, the thing with tobacco is that the health consequences occurred over time, and it wasn’t an immediate response. People ask me to compare that to the opioid problem now, and the problem now is that a 17-year-old gets a hold of an Oxy-80 pill out of grandmamma’s cabinet and takes a pill, they can die that day,” Rice said.

In 2014, attorneys who are now part of the Motley-Rice Law Firm filed the first opioid lawsuits in California and Illinois.

“The allegations in those cases were that the manufacturing defendants were using inappropriate marketing techniques to lure doctors into a sense of safety in using opioids for chronic pain,” said Rice.

Through years of litigation, Rice also took issue with the distribution of opioids and how much was going to certain locations.

“Based on the numbers coming out … there was clearly a failure among the distribution network that did not in any way shape or form monitor the where these pills were going.

The head judge in the case assigned Rice and the other attorneys to begin discussions and negotiations with the defendants on how to immediately curb the use and abuse of opioids.

All the while, the legal teams are preparing for litigation if an agreement is not reached.

“The addiction is immediate, and the damage is immediate, and we don’t have time to reverse it,” said Rice.

“I believe that if we’re successful in getting a resolution, we have to start with changes on Main Street USA. It has to start in Charleston, South Carolina, in North Charleston, in Moncks Corner. We have to address the problem in Main Street USA, and if we don’t, we’re going to lose a generation,” he said.

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