Skeptics appear to be in the majority in Franklin County when the topic is the hundreds of lawsuits that state and municipal governments are filing against the pharmaceutical industry for its role in the opioid epidemic. Two of the three members of the county commission were not ready last week to climb on board one such suit, which already lists as plaintiffs Maine’s state government, represented by Attorney General Janet Mills, and 11 of its 16 counties.

“Where is this going to end?” Commissioner Terry Brann asked Tuesday. “Are we going to sue the auto manufacturers because of accidents? Are we going to sue the alcohol industry… ? I don’t see any difference.”

Those are good examples of why these cases should proceed.

We have a long history of consumer protection litigation in this country, and despite a few well publicized excesses, these cases have compensated people who were harmed, held wrongdoers accountable and made the country a safer place. This history is what makes these opioid lawsuits a solid strategy.

There have been many lawsuits against auto makers for selling unsafe products like the Corvair or the Pinto, and victories by consumers have led to safer cars and trucks, saving thousands of lives every year. While the alcohol industry has not been considered liable for what people do while under the influence of its product, the tobacco industry has. In a landmark 1997 settlement, the attorneys general of 46 states were able to uncover evidence that the companies knew that cigarette smoking was linked with lung cancer and nicotine was addictive, but kept that information to themselves.

That funneled billions of dollars back to the states to help prevent kids from starting to smoke and convince adult smokers to quit. It also saves thousands of lives every year.

Considering the depth of the opioid epidemic, the pharmaceutical industry should have to face the kind of scrutiny in court that has been applied to other industries. The history of this epidemic raises troubling questions.For centuries, opium has been known to block acute pain, and chronic pain has existed since the beginning of time.

But for a variety of reasons, opioid drugs were not considered the best treatment for long-term pain until fairly recently. It changed in the 1980s when the pharmaceutical industry began to promote newly packaged pain killers to doctors and backing their pitch with industry-funded research that claimed that the drugs’ dangers had been overblown. Addiction was uncommon, the industry reported, and withdrawal could be easily managed.

Opioid sales soared throughout the next two decades. And so did demand for treatment and overdose deaths.

It turned out to be true that most people treated with the drugs did not become addicted to them, just as most Pinto owners did not die in explosions and most smokers do not get lung cancer. But 80 percent of heroin addicts report that their first experience with opioids came as pain patients under a doctor’s care. And roughly 25 percent of pain patients misuse their medication, either by abusing it themselves or selling it. As the epidemic spread, the industry did not blow the whistle on the troubling trends it must have seen. Companies were selling millions of bottles of pain killers, far in excess of what could be reasonably expected to be used for legitimate pain relief. The Washington Post and 60 Minutes uncovered government records that showed a single pharmacy in Brighton, Colorado, a town of 38,000 people, received 1.6 million orders for the pain pills. Almost none of these sales were flagged as suspicious by the supplier, McKessen Corp., even after the company was warned by the Drug Enforcement Administration and fined $13.2 million as a result of a previous investigation.

With approximately 620,000 overdose deaths between 1999 and 2016, there are some questions that the companies need to answer: What did they really know about their products? What did they do when they saw that things were not working out as planned? Could they have prevented this epidemic or at least slowed its growth?

Those are the kind of questions that can be answered through a lawsuit, where records can be subpoenaed and examined by neutral fact finders.

As for Commissioner Brann’s question, “Where is this going to end?” it’s too soon to say.

But it could end with accountability for bad actors, safer products that are handled more responsibly, money to help states pay expensive treatment bills – and thousands of lives saved every year.

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