NC’s attorney general is coming for TikTok, spam texts and opioids in 2023
Attorney general Josh Stein says he looks out for what’s harming the lives of North Carolinians. Then he goes after it.
- That could be the headaches of the day-to-day, from canceled flights to the difficulty of getting Taylor Swift tickets, that expose deeper-rooted issues in society.
- It also includes more serious problems, like opioid abuse, which kills thousands of residents each year.
Why it matters: As the state’s top legal officer, the attorney general has an influential job. Axios sat down with Stein to reflect on 2022 and look forward to what to expect in 2023. In the new year, he’s going after TikTok for its risks to young people, and is proceeding with legal action against polluters who dumped harmful contaminants into the state’s environment.
- We asked Stein about his expected run for governor in 2024. After all, Roy Cooper and Mike Easley both served as attorney general before becoming N.C. governor.
- Stein said he doesn’t feel urgency to make a decision at this point. “However, I can best serve the people in North Carolina, I want to do that.”
Flashback: Stein is coming off an eventful 2022.
- The national $26-billion opioid settlement, which received final approval in February, was the second largest state attorney general settlement in history, after the tobacco settlement of 1998. Now counties, towns and cities are beginning to make decisions about how to use the incoming cash to combat the crisis.
- North Carolina has put a sizable dent in testing its backlog of sexual assault kits. There have been 96 arrests from matching DNA to the FBI’s database.
- A group of attorneys general reached a nearly $400 million settlement with Google for not disclosing how it was tracking users’ locations. Stein has requested that the North Carolina General Assembly use $7 million of its share to expand underserved communities’ access to broadband.
- Stein used his position to defend abortion rights following the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Here are five of Stein’s fights we are watching in 2023.
1. $32.5M incoming for the opioid crisis
Mecklenburg County leaders and other stakeholders are already considering how to use the millions that will funnel into the area over the next 18 years to curb opioid abuse.
What’s happening: The funds from the opioid settlement must go toward tackling the crisis, whether that be funding prevention, treatment or recovery services.
- Through an online database, local governments will track the funding.
- “We don’t know exactly what we will achieve. But of this I’m certain,” Stein said, “that there will be more people alive, healthy and happy a year from now and the year after that and the year after that than otherwise would have been.”
Between the lines: Stein has heard of some effective ideas to put the money to work across the state.
- Newly hired probation and parole officers are helping move people with addiction out of the criminal justice system.
- Jails are easing inmates’ opioid dependence with Methadone and other medication-assisted treatments. Buncombe County, which uses the sometimes-called “gold standard” treatment, has reported a 20% reduction in overdose deaths of people arrested over the past five years.
2. Those pesky robotexts
For years, Stein’s office has worked with other states to push phone companies to crack down on robocalls.
- The next step is to target the texts.
What’s happening: Attorneys general nationwide are urging the Federal Communications Commission to apply the same rules to robotexts as it’s done for robocalls. This means messages originating from spoof numbers would not be allowed to come through.
What’s next: Stein expects federal rules to be finalized sometime next year. After that, companies will likely have a grace period to implement technology to prevent robotexts.
3. Coming to the Swifties’ defense
After the chaos that was the Taylor Swift presale, Stein joined Tennessee’s attorney general in announcing his office would investigate Ticketmaster and Live Nation.
What’s happening: The investigation will look into whether the combined company failed to follow through on promises, a potential violation of consumer protection laws, and if it broke antitrust laws.
What’s next: The investigation is underway.
4. Time is ticking for TikTok
Stein announced in March he is investigating TikTok for knowingly threatening young people’s mental health.
- “I’m worried it’ll get worse if we don’t take action,” Stein said.
- Stein is also part of a coalition of attorneys general who are investigating Facebook for similar reasons.
What they found: Internal research conducted by Instagram’s parent company revealed a third of teen girls said they felt worst about their bodies after using the app, and that it increased rates of anxiety and depression, The Wall Street Journal reported.
- “Yet, they continued to develop their software to make it more and more desirable or addictive to young people,” Stein said.
What’s next: Investigations at the attorney general’s office can lead to lawsuits, proposed changes to laws, and negotiations with the company, among other outcomes.
5. Testing the abandoned rape kits
In 2018, the attorney general’s office announced a state audit discovered more than 15,000 rape kits sitting on shelves of police departments and sheriffs’ offices statewide.
- It was the largest test kit backlog in the country.
By the numbers: Now, of the approximately 12,000 kits eligible for testing (some can’t be tested if a police report wasn’t filed), more than 8,000 have been tested. The testing of all the kits could be completed late this year.
What’s happening: DNA from the kits, when matched to the national FBI database, has created leads for law enforcement to pursue. Last month, two arrests and one conviction were made in one week in Fayetteville, Durham and Wilmington.
- Under the Survivor Act, which Stein advocated for, law enforcement is now required to test new kits within 45 days when they accompany a police complaint.
- “Some of them have been murders where the person is no longer alive,” Stein said. “But for their family, it’s really important that they have a sense of closure and know that whatever person did this awful, terrible, unspeakable crime to their loved one is going to go to prison for an exceptionally long time.”