Among individuals with an opioid use disorder, 75 percent report that their first exposure to opioids was in the form of a prescription drug. As of June 2018, more than 600 state, county, and city governments have filed lawsuits against the pharmaceutical companies responsible for manufacturing opioid painkillers. Most of these lawsuits have to do with aggressive marketing tactics and dishonesty regarding the addictive potential of the drugs. Now, however, a law firm in Philadelphia is proposing a class action suit against several opioid manufacturers for their role in the problems faced by babies that were exposed to opioids in the womb.
The suit was brought by John Weston, an attorney at Sacks Weston Diamond in Philadelphia, a firm that has previously won verdicts against Exxon Mobil and Phillip Morris. The suit is on behalf of an anonymous baby and his mother and is the first of its kind of be filed in Pennsylvania. Lawsuits have been filed in other states on behalf of babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome, but they aren’t common. The claims are basically the same as the lawsuits brought by state and local governments, but where those seek to recover costs related to the opioid crisis for themselves, suits like the one filed by Weston are seeking money for medical care for the opioid-exposed children. If the lawsuit were to go in Weston’s favor, the people who could benefit would be limited to children whose mothers could prove that their own opioid addiction began with prescription drugs.
The suit alleges that children who were exposed to opioids before birth suffer from long term medical problems. However, studies on this subject have varied results and tend to be biased. The effects of withdrawal in babies born addicted to opioids can disappear within days or weeks, but some studies say that there are lingering behavioral, cognitive, and physical problems.
It can also be hard to determine exactly what problems in the children were actually caused by opioids. Many of the mothers who were using opioids while pregnant were abusing other drugs or alcohol, which have their own effects on unborn children. There are other factors that can impact the health of children, such as poverty, poor nutrition, lack of prenatal care, and so forth. Another problem is that some of these women might be taking opioids like methadone or buprenorphine in order to deal with cravings while they’re trying to quit using other prescription opioids. For example, in Tennessee, where data is collected on the sources of neonatal drug exposure, 70 percent of cases in 2017 were associated with the mothers’ medication-assisted treatment.
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