As the opioid litigation continues over the shadow of one of our nation’s most pressing public health crises, some criticism has been levied at private lawyers representing the cities, counties, states, and individuals harmed by the crisis. For example, see the following tweet:
Let’s work out tax and healthcare financing policy county by county, with private lawyers taking a 25% cut every time. Judge Polster seems to like this idea.
The critiques are many, but can be summarized: (1) private lawyers are being enriched; (2) private lawyers are setting opioid policy; (3) private lawyers have misaligned incentives; and (4) private lawyers will not support public health.
Arguably, all these arguments bear some truth. However, do they suggest that the opioid litigation is incorrigibly tainted and tort litigation the improper avenue to address mass torts such as the opioid crisis?
On October 21, two Ohio counties are slated to present their opioid claims in a federal trial. However, last week, 13 states and the District of Columbia signed onto a brief requesting that the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals stay the upcoming trials. Their reasoning? States should control lawsuits for harms within the state; cities and counties do not have authority to sue on their own. While it makes sense that Ohio’s attorney general, spearheading this effort, would want more power and control over opioid claims, the move has the potential to harm public health by disempowering local governments from addressing public health crises. Ohio’s three main arguments will be discussed in turn.
Argument 1: Violation of State Sovereignty
First, Ohio argues that the county lawsuits violate state sovereignty and disrupt the “federal dual-sovereign structure” of the United States:
People following the opioid lawsuits might have noticed some strange headlines as of late. Virtually every state’s attorney general (AG) is suing Purdue Pharmaceuticals, maker of the blockbuster drug OxyContin. Purdue filed for bankruptcy and is hoping to settle for “$10 billion.” However, the deal only includes $4.4 billion in cash, which is less than the Sackler family, owners of Purdue, transferred to personal accounts over the past decade. In other words, the amount of money the Sacklers made from the opioid epidemic is more than what they will pay more than forty states to help abate the crisis. Is anyone supporting this deal?
Yes, in fact, and this is where the plot thickens. With several exceptions, support for the deal falls along party lines: Republican AGs support the deal, and Democratic AGs oppose it. Why does a decision about settling with an opioid company appear to be political? What is the role of an attorney general? And are they supposed to defend public health?
On September 10, 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning letter to Juul asserting that the vaping manufacturer had violated federal law by illegally marketing its e-cigarettes as safer than other products. Citing evidence uncovered at a July 2019 House Subcommittee hearing as well as industry documents, FDA claims that Juul marketed its products as modified-risk tobacco products (MRTPs) without an FDA order allowing the product to be marketed as such. Therefore, FDA concluded, Juul’s products are adulterated.
At first blush, this seems like a heavy-hitting letter. FDA warning letters are an effective enforcement tool because they intimidate regulated entities and carry the threat of further enforcement. FDA likely hopes Juul will bring itself into compliance with federal law by ceasing to market its products as lower-risk.
However, enforcement letters carry no legal weight in and of themselves. Should Juul continue to market its products as lower-risk, there may be a long legal battle implicating the First Amendment.
“Stigma is fundamentally about alienation and exclusion,” said stigma expert Dr. Daniel Goldberg, Associate Professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus’s Center for Bioethics and Humanities, in a recent interview. “Even when you control for access, people who are stigmatized get sicker and die quicker. And of course, we are social creatures. If stigma exists persistently and longitudinally, the more likely you are to be socially isolated, and social isolation is one of the most powerful predictors of mortality.”
Inclusionary zoning (IZ) laws are one such approach, and are intended to create affordable housing through collaboration between public and private developers. These laws create requirements and incentives for developers, such as unit size minimums and establishing income eligibility criteria. IZ laws counter preceding ‘exclusionary zoning’ policy where large-lot zoning is used to prevent low-income integration into rising developments. Contrary to the original intent, IZ laws have been criticized for creating potential financial disincentives to develop in low-income areas and increasing housing price inflation.
To combat this risk, states like New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California have added additional incentives such as density bonuses, expedited approvals, and fee waivers. These have been presented to developers as part of state ordinances and regulations. Under its Affordable Housing Act, Illinois seeks to create grants, mortgages, and loans to rehabilitate, develop, operate, and maintain housing for low-income and very-low-income families. The Act requires local governments to create affordable housing plans based upon their municipalities’ median incomes. For example, based upon population median incomes and housing values, the town of Evanston, Illinois is required to provide 4,993 affordable housing units to accommodate its population of 75,472 who have an area median income of $63,327.
The Cook County Health Department in Illinois just published a dataset to LawAtlas.org as part of a yearlong legal epidemiology project funded by the CDC Public Health Law Program and ChangeLab Solutions. The health department created a policy surveillance dataset tracking IZ laws in 10 municipalities across the country, concentrating on residential areas around Cook County and the Chicago Metropolitan area: Boulder, Colorado; Burlington, Vermont; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Evanston, Illinois; Highland Park-Lake County, Illinois; Irvine, California; Lake Forest-Lake County, Illinois; San Diego, California; Santa Fe, California; Stamford, Connecticut.
One common provision of IZ policies are set-asides. These are ordinances that require developers to reserve a portion of the new development for low-income residents. Through its policy surveillance project, the health department found that nine of the jurisdictions have implemented mandatory IZ policies and six jurisdictions have established preferences for who can live in set-aside units. The percentage of set-aside required for low-income housing varies by jurisdiction – from 10 percent in two jurisdictions, up to 25 percent in one. Of the 10 jurisdictions studied, one (Stamford, Connecticut) doesn’t require any set-aside, and nine allow for alternatives to set-asides, such as fee-in-lieu (nine jurisdictions), land dedication (six jurisdictions), and alternative proposals (four jurisdictions). For those jurisdictions with fee-in-lieu alternatives, seven provide those payments to Affordable Housing Funds.
While extensive literature provides evidence for a positive association between levels of wealth in an area and the levels of health in that area, more research is needed to establish the efficacy of IZ laws. Governments are increasingly implementing relevant policies to combat the negative effects of gentrification and IZ policies could be part of the mix, particularly when used in conjunction with efforts to preserve existing community culture beyond property interest, as neighborhoods provide important social support networks for residents. “Revitalization without displacement” is a rising standard for preserving the positive economic benefits of gentrification without destroying communities through displacement. This policy advocates increasing the total population by filling vacancies and increasing housing densities and preserving community bonds. Experts consider ‘social mix’ to be a common good.
The ten policies in this dataset are just the tip of the iceberg, but they do offer an interesting, important look into the complexity and variation of these laws.
A health care environment already rife with navigational challenges for immigrant communities likely just became much more complicated and more dangerous even after planned US Immigrant and Customs Enforcement (ICE) court-ordered arrests and deportations this past Sunday, July 14, in 10 major U.S. cities never really materialized.
News articles from New Jersey to California detail immigrant communities on high alert, with many members of those communities fearing to go out in public. As the LA Times reports, whether this self-induced quarantining is a “one-day shift” or whether it will continue remains to be seen, but it is likely one will further harm immigrant populations, particularly Latinx and Hispanic communities. The planned (though largely uneventful ICE raids) are authorized by the Immigration and Nationality Act, which was amended in 1996 to include the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, including section 287(g). Read More
Exclusionary school discipline (ESD) policies, also known as Zero Tolerance policies, enforce disciplinary measures like suspension, expulsion, or law enforcement referral to address particular student behaviors.
Though it began as part of the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which mandated one-year expulsion for possessing a firearm at school, ESD became more widely adopted over time. Now, the policies apply nationwide to a broad range of behaviors — from damaging property and fighting, to possessing a cell phone or tobacco, as well as behaviors described by subjective terms often undefined in the law, like willful defiance, obscenity, or profanity. Read More
The report discussed how the location of homes—such as proximity to good schools, jobs, grocery stores, and parks—quality of homes—such as the presence of mold or lead—and cost burdens and opportunities to accumulate wealth associated with different housing conditions—such as renting versus homeownership—all influence the health of individuals and communities. Read More
Florence Nightingale once said, “The connection between health and the dwellings of the population is one of the most important that exists” — a statement that is as true today as it was at the turn of the 20th century. A decent dwelling and diverse communities, where there is access to transportation, good schools, shops, parks, socioeconomic mixture, social capital and collective efficacy, and economic opportunity are all features necessary for both a high-level and equitable distribution of well-being.
The promise of healthy housing and communities, however, falls short in the United States. Much of the housing in the U.S. is expensive, unsafe, and inadequate in supply. Read More