Tong takes on the opioid crisis, Sacklers and COVID-19 powers in Greenwich talk

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, seen here in 2019, spoke again to the Retired Men’s Association in Greenwich on Wednesday, discussing his ongoing efforts in the opioid crisis against as well as the law in the state under the COVID-19 pandemic.

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, seen here in 2019, spoke again to the Retired Men’s Association in Greenwich on Wednesday, discussing his ongoing efforts in the opioid crisis against as well as the law in the state under the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tyler Sizemore / Hearst Connecticut Media file photo

GREENWICH — Hours before signing the state onto a $26 billion national settlement in connection with the opioid crisis, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong showed that his ongoing battle with Purdue Pharma and and the Sackler family members who own it is far from over.

Tong, who spoke Wednesday before the Retired Men’s Association of Greenwich, was asked during the Q-and-A session about his objections to a different settlement plan, the bankruptcy of OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma.

“It’s not enough money when you look the scale of the harm and damage that they have done,” Tong told the RMA. “Purdue isn’t the only actor and the Sacklers weren’t the only actor, but they played a central role in starting this crisis and then fueling it. And instead of, in my view, helping us put out the fire, they put gasoline on it.”

Connecticut is expected to see $300 million in the new settlement deal with the country’s three largest pharmaceutical distributors and drugmaker Johnson & Johnson. But Connecticut’s lawsuit continues against Stamford-based Purdue, accusing it of deceptive marketing of OxyContin, which Tong said helped cause the opioid addiction crisis in the United States.

Conservative estimates show the Sacklers made at least $11 billion personally by selling OxyContin, Tong said, and therefore offering to pay $4.2 billion over nine years in the proposed settlement “does not seem just to me at all.”

“My job is not just to take the money or get the best deal that I can because it’s not all about the money,” Tong said. “My job is to seek as much justice as I can for the thousand Connecticut families that will lose somebody this year. Our state has been losing that number of people for a long time and that number keeps going up. And the $10 billion in damage to the state this year alone from the opioid addiction crisis.”

Through its bankruptcy, Purdue is trying to reach a comprehensive settlement of about 3,000 lawsuits filed by local and state governments alleging the company fueled the opioid crisis with deceptive marketing of OxyContin.

Purdue denies the complaints’ accusations, but it has offered a settlement “which would transfer billions of dollars of value into trusts for the benefit of the American people and direct critically-needed resources to communities and individuals nationwide who have been affected by the opioid crisis. Our broadly supported plan will deliver funds and resources that are needed now and would have a profoundly positive impact on public health,” Purdue said in a statement Wednesday.

Its settlement plan has garnered support from a number of creditor groups. Earlier this month, 15 states that had previously opposed the proposal said they would now accept it after Purdue and the Sackler family members who own the firm made additional concessions. Connecticut and eight other states, however, still object.

Purdue, in its statement, touted the broad support it has for its proposal to convert itself into a “public benefit” company that would use its funds to help tackle the opioid crisis.

“Any party who believes that overwhelming majority of creditors got it wrong and the settlement is not reasonable has the opportunity to so prove at the confirmation hearing” in bankruptcy court for their reorganization plan, the company said.

The opioid crisis was brought up only during the Q-and-A at the RMA. Tong’s presentation was about Connecticut law during the COVID-19 pandemic, as he defended the executive actions taken by Gov. Ned Lamont.

Many have expired, but the state legislature granted Lamont an extension until September for some of the executive actions. Tong called the COVID-19 pandemic “likely the worst public health emergency in our lifetimes apart from the opioid and addiction crisis.”

Tong called it a “global emergency” that has caused 600,000 deaths in the United States, almost as many as diied during the Civil War, with 8,000 lives lost in Connecticut. Lamont “absolutely does” have the power to take “strong and immediate” action under state law in response to the pandemic, Tong said. That it is “not a legal matter really in dispute,” he said.

He also spoke about the danger of misinformation about the pandemic and vaccines, especially on social media.

“There’s a lot of bad information out there and it’s putting people in danger,” Tong said. “The result is that people will get sick and that’s why it’s so important that I press Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and make sure we try to keep bad information off of those platforms.”

Tong admitted this can cause “First Amendment issues,” but he said a lot of the “bad actors” in these cases are selling products and saying that COVID is not that bad or the vaccines don’t work in order to sell fake vaccine supplements, for example.

“Some people are literally profiteering off the pandemic and that gives me an opportunity and a legal basis to go after them,” Tong said. “That’s a very serious issue.”

RMA member Arnold Gordon asked Tong whether actions could be taken against those who deliberately spread misinformation on social media, talk radio and television. Gordon said he wanted to see them held accountable legally and said that if they were punished, others might stop telling lies.

Tong again acknowledged the First Amendment issues in taking action, particularly when it came to talk radio or television.

“However, I don’t think the First Amendment says you can say whatever the hell you want at any time without regard of the consequences,” Tong said. “That’s not true. You don’t have a right to shout fire in a crowded theater. We know that. So our liberties, as guaranteed by the Constitution, are a set of ordered liberties, and you have to exercise them with due regard to everyone else’s liberties.

“I don’t think you have the right to say things, even if you are a public figure, that you know will make people sick or get them killed,” he said.