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Booker on opioids: Pharma companies 'should absolutely be held criminally liable'

Adriana Belmonte
Associate Editor

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) didn’t hold back during the first night of the 2020 Democratic presidential debates, specifically when it came to the role of Big Pharma in the U.S. opioid crisis.

When asked if pharmaceutical companies that produce opioids should be held accountable for the opioid crisis, Booker did not mention any company by name but answered emphatically.

“They should absolutely be held criminally liable, because they are liable and responsible,” he said.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker speaks at the first U.S. 2020 presidential election Democratic candidates debate in Miami, Florida, U.S., June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Segar

‘Part of this problem’

Booker added that he previously “said I would not take contributions from pharma companies, [would] not take contributions from corporate PACs or pharma executives — because they are part of this problem.”

According to OpenSecrets, while Booker was running for office in 2014, he received a total of $323,500 from pharmaceutical/health product lobbying — the most among all Democratic senators and the second-most overall. In 2016, he received $57,500 from pharmaceutical PACs.

The progressive senator faced heavy scrutiny in January 2017 after voting against a bill, sponsored by fellow presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, aimed at lowering drug prices. A Booker spokesman told Vox that it was due to “concerns over the ‘safety standards’ of the prescription drugs that would be coming in from Canada under the amendment.” In spite of that response, some critics attributed his move to his large number of pharma donors.

After the criticism he faced in 2017 following his opposition to Sanders’ bill, Booker elected to “pause” taking donations from drug companies.

“It is time that we have a national urgency to deal with this problem and make the solutions that are working to actually be the law of our land and make the pharmaceutical companies that are responsible help to pay for that,” he said during the debate.

Other candidates weigh in on the opioid crisis

U.S. Senator Cory Booker, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke pose together before the start of the first U.S. 2020 presidential election Democratic candidates debate in Miami, Florida, U.S., June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Fellow candidate Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) expressed a similar sentiment, stating: “Unless there’s accountability and justice, this crisis will continue.”

O’Rourke singled out Purdue Pharma, the makers of Oxycontin, which has been the center of controversy in regards to its role in the opioid crisis.

“Despite what Purdue Pharma has done, their connection to the opioid crisis and the overdose deaths that we’re seeing throughout this country, they have been able to act with complete impunity and pay no consequences,” O’Rourke said in the debate.

That’s not entirely accurate — Purdue Pharma reached a $270 million settlement with the state of Oklahoma in March 2019. As of June, the company has been sued by 48 states and the District of Columbia for its marketing practices that are alleged to have fueled the opioid epidemic.

No other candidates weighed in on opioid addiction during the debate. Candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) recently rolled out her proposal aimed at curbing addiction back in May. Her CARE Act, which she is partnering up with Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) for, would give $100 billion in federal funding over the next decade to states and communities that have been hit the hardest by opioid addiction.

She’s not the only candidate with a plan for opioids. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) also released her proposal in March 2019, although it received less enthusiastic responses.

Adriana is an associate editor for Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter @adrianambells.

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