Tennessee's next governor could likely oversee a sizeable legal settlement with drug makers related to the opioid crisis. But when the state got a windfall from a settlement with tobacco companies in 1998, very little of the money went into programs that help farmers stop producing tobacco or help people quit smoking.
So we asked the six leading candidates for governor whether they would commit money from opioid litigation to drug treatment. This is the rare question that evenly divided the gubernatorial hopefuls, with no relation to party.
Republicans Beth Harwell and Randy Boyd say — without hesitation — all of the money that comes from suing drug makers will go to combat the opioid epidemic. Boyd, who is a businessman from Knoxville and the former economic development commissioner, says opioid addiction has cost the state too much already.
"Today, the largest place in the state for recovery of addiction is our jails," Boyd says. "We have to do a better job."
Democrat Craig Fitzhugh, the House Minority Leader, also says he'd use 100 percent of any money for addiction treatment and prevention, adding that there's value in making a commitment before the state knows how much it might receive.
"I recall when we had the big settlement for tobacco farmers. That money was supposed to go to help them get new crops and do things, and it didn't," he says. "It went to the general fund because we were having budgetary problems."
The $4.8 billion is still being paid out in annual installments through 2025, when the state will have to find a way to replace that tobacco settlement revenue.
But Democrat Karl Dean and Republicans Bill Lee and Diane Black say it's too early to earmark the expected money from drug makers.
"I don't know that I would at this point in time tell you that I would dedicate it all to one particular source," Congressman Black says. "I think there are other feeder agencies that might come into this, for instance maybe some law enforcement."
Black figures police might need cash for a crackdown on dealers.
Indeed, the costs from the opioid epidemic are far reaching. An analysis from 2017 showed that in Tennessee more than $400 million a year goes to hospitalizations, and more than a billion dollars is lost annually because of all the people with substance abuse problems who are out of work.
Full Responses From The Candidates
Would you dedicate all money that comes from a potential settlement with opioid drug makers to addiction treatment?
Diane Black: "I certainly would look at that as being one of the places. I don't know that I would at this point in time tell you that I would dedicate it all to one particular source. I think there are other feeder agencies that might come into this, for instance maybe some law enforcement may need some additional money for what they're doing in the field to help to prevent illicit drugs from coming into our state. So I'm not going to commit to where that money would go to, but certainly a chunk of that would go to mental illness and treating mental illness."
Randy Boyd: "I would put it in recovery and prevention. I think we've got to make a concerted effort to better educate people about the dangers of opioids so more people understand how addictive these things are. The more people understand how lethal these things are, the less they'll be likely to fill that prescription that they shouldn't have gotten in the first place. And the second thing is we've got to use that money to invest in recovery. Today the largest place in the state for recovery of addiction is our jails. We have to do a better job. ... All the money would go toward prevention and toward recovery.
Karl Dean: "Obviously there's certain things you would consider such as treatment [and] education-related things, but it's something I would need to think about a lot more carefully before weighing in on. … Not knowing anything about any discussions, it sounds to me like you would want it to be directed toward something that's related to what the lawsuit was about, whether it's treatment or education about drug issues. But again I think for me to comment definitively on that at this point is very premature.
Craig Fitzhugh: "Some of my colleagues don't like to to earmark money because they say it's not the best budgeting practice, but certainly on lawsuits that we can go out and get something for, I think we need to do that. I recall when we had the big settlement for tobacco farmers. That money was supposed to go to help them get new crops and do things, and it didn't. It went to the general fund because we were having budgetary problems. So I think if folks know on the front end that we're going after these folks, we're going to make some changes, and if we get a verdict, it should go to help opioids."
Beth Harwell: "I would commit that it would go there. I mean, rehabilitation is a costly proposition for our state. It's one we have to properly address. I don't know what the outcome of that lawsuit will be. I suspect it will not be as large a settlement as we received in the tobacco, but I'm hopeful. What would be even better is if the pharmaceutical company would step forward and voluntarily help us fund some of this rehabilitation. … Obviously, if we are successful in the lawsuit, I would want to put the money toward rehabilitation and prevention."
Bill Lee: "The pharmaceutical industry has a significant role to play in the solutions to this because they had a significant role to play in the development of this crisis in our country and certainly in our state. You know I wouldn't say what I would do with that money until I knew how much it was and what that actual settlement is going to look like. I certainly think we've got to invest in treatment programs. But how we do that would depend on what those settlements actually look like."