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SALT LAKE CITY — No payout can make up for the damage that a flood of prescription pills has wrought in Utah over decades, Attorney General Sean Reyes said Thursday.
But it can help limit the fallout.
The state's anticipated share of a national settlement from drug companies — $309 million — will help address the crisis that continues to claim lives and devastate families regardless of where they live in Utah or how much money they have, Reyes told reporters at the state Capitol on Thursday.
"Opioids is a killer that does not discriminate," Reyes said.
The money could help expand a program in the state that brings people in crisis to a treatment center rather than jail after an arrest, or strengthen technology that safely disposes of leftover prescription drugs, Reyes said. It could also cover forums for teens and give a potential boost to Utah Naloxone, the nonprofit that seeks to arm as many people as possible with the overdose-reversing drug.
Utah lawmakers and Gov. Spencer Cox will ultimately hammer out how the state will spend the cash. Utah's share is a little more than 1% of the total settlement and will roll in over a period of 18 years after the companies agreed to pay $26 billion. The proposed deal resolves thousands of lawsuits over their roles in the country's opioid crisis.
States have about a month to decide whether to accept their portion of the deal with Johnson & Johnson and three of the country's largest drug distributors, AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson. Washington state has rejected the deal and will continue fighting its case, but Utah is signing on, Reyes said.
Johnson & Johnson wasn't required to admit wrongdoing. The company said Wednesday that its marketing and promotion of prescription opioid medications were "appropriate and responsible."
Last year, it voluntarily stopped selling prescription opioids and agreed to no longer manufacture the drugs as part of the settlement.
Utah's municipalities can agree to the deal, too, and have about four months to do so. But a payout is not a sure thing. If the drug companies aren't satisfied with the number of states on board, they can pull out of the deal, according to Reyes' office.
Utah is continuing fights against other drugmakers.
Reyes said the state stands to receive a separate $50 million payout under OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma's bankruptcy plan that's awaiting approval from a federal judge in New York.
Reyes noted Utah has made progress in curbing deaths from heroin and prescription and synthetic painkillers in recent years. It ranked 4th in the nation for deaths from 2012-2014, but dropped to 24th by 2018, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. There were 437 opioid-related overdoses that year.
Some public health experts are skeptical the money to states will be used the right way. Only fractions of a $200 billion-plus tobacco settlement in 1998 have gone toward preventing smoking and helping people quit. Much of the money helped to balance budgets, lay fiber-optic cable or repair roads, the Associated Press reported.
Others say the settlement is a wake-up call.
The companies failed to protect consumers from the dangers of opioids even as they claimed to have systems in place to do so, said Margaret Busse, executive director of the Utah Department of Commerce. There weren't true checks in place that could limit the destruction as it took hold, she said.
As the nation moves forward, she said, "We really have to think about things that are happening that nobody's questioning, that might really be causing harm."