There are lies of commission. We’ve become familiar with them as President Donald Trump repeatedly says, or thumbs-out every hour on the Twitter, statements demonstrably at odds with known facts.
Because flat-out lies can be checked and refuted, they are less dangerous than lies of omission, in which knowledgeable sources hide the facts so that they cannot be known and used to refute those pesky and popular lies of commission.
A perfect example of this kind of lying was revealed a few weeks ago after lawsuits filed by the Washington Post and the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette-Mail forced the federal government’s the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to make public what they have long known about America’s disastrous epidemic of addiction to opioid pain-killing drugs – who made ‘em, who distributed ‘em, who sold ‘em – where, when and how many?
The numbers were shocking:
*76 billion opioid oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills were sold in the United States between 2006 and 2012.
*Just six companies distributed 75 percent of them. WHOLESALERS: McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen. AND RETAILERS Walgreens, CVS and Walmart.
*Just three companies manufactured about 88 percent of the opioids: SpecGx, a subsidiary of Mallinckrodt, Actavis Pharma, and Par Pharmaceutical (a subsidiary of Endo Pharmaceuticals).
That the DEA hid what it knew was consequential. Here’s just one example: Purdue Pharma, the developer of Oxycontin, the most notorious brand name of prescription opioid drugs, was, the DEA data showed, just the number four manufacturer for the U.S. market. It settled a lawsuit by the state of Oklahoma for $270 million, more than three times the $85 million settlement Oklahoma made with the Israeli manufacturer Teva Pharamceuticals.
But one of the facts the DEA kept secret, even as that lawsuit proceeded, was that Teva, through its subsidiary Actavis Pharma, actually was a far bigger opioid pusher than Purdue. Sounds like one cost of the DEA’s duplicity was something like $200 million to the taxpayers of Oklahoma.
Both the Oklahoma settlements are small potatoes compared to the stakes of a case on the docket for next month for a federal court in Cleveland. In that proceeding, 2,000 cities, counties and other groups across the country are plaintiffs in the largest civil case in U.S. history. One informed estimate of the possible settlement of this big lawsuit is $30 to $55 billion.
But life is more valuable than mere money, and here is what knowledge revealed and not kept secret can do. As coverage of the opioid epidemic has grown so has public awareness, and surely that helps account for this dramatic change. In 2018, for the first time in decades, drug overdose deaths nationally declined about five percent, and driving that happy number is an even more concentrated drop in deaths from prescription opioids.
Lenny Bernstein is a medical and science reporter for the Washington Post. He started as an editor on The Washington Post’s National desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports. His continuing series of reports, done with investigative reporter Scott Higham, has revealed how political decisions have crippled the DEA’s efforts to control the flood of opioid drugs being sold across the United States. Lenny and Scott and their associate David Fallis won the 2016 Gorge Polk Award for Medical Reporting.