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Federal Prosecutors Continue Probe Of Drug Industry's Role In Opioid Epidemic

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Drug companies still face a lot of questions about their role in the nation's opioid epidemic. The Wall Street Journal drew new attention today to a probe by federal prosecutors looking at drug companies. The U.S. attorney's office in Brooklyn has been issuing subpoenas. No charges have been filed. This comes as efforts to settle thousands of civil cases against the drug industry have stalled. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann covers opioid litigation for NPR. He's here now.

Hi, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: What do we know about this investigation?

MANN: So we've known for a while that the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn has been issuing subpoenas for these documents related to opioid sales and distribution. A half-dozen companies, including Johnson & Johnson, Teva and Mallinckrodt, began receiving subpoenas as far back as April. So this has been in the works for a while. And we know this because the companies have been reporting it in their financial disclosures that they make to investors, essentially identifying possible risk of criminal charges. And so now The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources, says this has taken the form of a preliminary criminal probe. NPR reached out to the U.S. attorney's office this afternoon. They say they won't confirm or deny that a full-blown criminal investigation is underway.

KELLY: I know in your reporting, you've been looking at why there haven't been more criminal charges stemming from these companies and their alleged role in the opioid epidemic. Is this maybe a sign that things are starting to change?

MANN: I don't think quite yet. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died from opioid overdoses at a time when many of these companies were making billions of dollars in profits. But federal prosecutors have been really cautious about bringing criminal charges. It's unclear, really, whether any of these firms will ever face any kind of criminal trial. I spoke this fall with Michael Canty. He's a former federal prosecutor in New York. And he said these criminal cases are just really hard to prove.

MICHAEL CANTY: The burden of proof is much different. You know, one of the basic tenets of being a prosecutor is that you don't bring a case unless you believe you can prove a defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

MANN: And what makes these opioid cases even harder to prosecute is that these pain medications are highly controlled. They were tracked closely by federal regulators. Drug companies point out the government knew all along how many pills they were making and selling.

KELLY: Has there been reaction from the drug companies today to this Wall Street Journal story?

MANN: Yeah. Johnson & Johnson issued a statement this afternoon to NPR, acknowledging they've received what they called investigative demands. They say it's their understanding the feds have opened an industry-wide investigation of whether drug companies complied with the rules under the Controlled Substances Act. But Johnson & Johnson, like these other firms, has denied any wrongdoing.

KELLY: I am remembering, though, Johnson & Johnson lost that big civil trial in Oklahoma over the summer. And then, of course, drug companies have settled another lawsuit filed in Ohio by two counties last month. Give us a quick update on where all of these thousands of other civil suits stand.

MANN: It's gotten really messy. There are court cases scheduled now out to the horizon, all over the country. And as you say, settlement money has begun to flow, hundreds of millions of dollars going to a handful of states and communities. And some of that money could help people begin to recover from the epidemic, paying for recovery treatment centers, that kind of thing. But the experts we've been talking to say a big, national settlement of the drug industry's role in this epidemic, comparable to those tobacco settlements of the '90s - that's looking less and less likely. There are just too many people fighting over what that kind of settlement would look like.

KELLY: That's Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio. He covers opioid litigation for us at NPR, and we reached him via Skype.

Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIBIO'S "CURLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.