Johnson & Johnson deemed responsible by Oklahoma judge for opioid crisis in landmark case.
On Aug. 26, an Oklahoma judge ordered pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson to pay the state $572 million, ruling that the company must take responsibility for the spread of opioid addiction. In court papers, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter reported that about 6,000 Oklahomans have died from opioid overdoses, and thousands more struggle with an addiction.
This trial is not the first action Oklahoma has taken against drug companies. The state has also reached settlements with two other groups: a $270 million deal with Purdue Pharma, the OxyContin producer, and an $85 million settlement with Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., according to the LA Times.
Still, the Johnson & Johnson case is monumental. Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman’s decision marks the first ruling to hold a drugmaker liable for the hard- ships the opioid crisis created.
In his ruling, Balkman reported the defendants “engaged in false and misleading marketing of both their drugs and opioids generally, and the law makes clear that such conduct is more than enough to serve as the act or omission necessary to establish the first element of Oklahoma’s public nuisance law.”
Furthermore, according to The New York Times, sales representatives were coached to avoid the “addiction ditch” — the draw- backs associated with drug use dependence — when persuading doctors to prescribe opioids for patients with moderate to severe pain.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports the burden based on “prescription drug misuse alone, in 2013, was 78.5 billion.” State attorneys had originally asked for $17.5 billion “over 30 years for treatment, emergency care, law enforcement, social services and other addiction related-needs.” Balkman, however, decided that it would cost $572 million to address the issues in the first year of the state’s plan.
Still, some celebrate the decision against Johnson & Johnson because it is seen as a means of gaining accountability for the deaths and addictions caused by their opioid dispensing.
Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research and an expert witness in the lawsuit, said, “Oklahoma is one of the hardest hit states. There has been a tremendous loss of life.”
Indeed, for every 100 Oklahomans, there was an estimated 101.7 opioid prescriptions were written in 2015, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That amounted to nearly 4 million prescriptions from that year alone. In 2016, Oklahomans “fatally overdosed on opioids at a rate of 11.6 deaths per 100,000 people — nationwide, that rate was roughly 13 deaths per 100,000 people.”
Johnson & Johnson, although reportedly sympathetic to the victims of opioid addiction, vehemently denies any wrongdoing, and the company plans to appeal the decision.
Regardless, Oklahoma will receive an additional $11.8 million in federal funds to further battle the opioid crisis. According to the Oklahoman, the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services will be given $7.6 million in new federal funds, while the Oklahoma State Department of Health will receive around $4.2 million. The latter will use a portion of the funds to improve its ability to collect data on drug overdoses, and this data will be sent to various health professionals so further actions can be taken to prevent overdoses. Other programs will be helped, such as improving the education for the public in hopes of reducing the stigma surrounding addiction and substance use disorders.
Tony Sellars, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Health Department, reports that the funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is part of a three-year program that allows for the department to receive the $4.2 million each year.
Ultimately, what’s considered so important about this ruling is that it sets a precedent. Nationally, there are more than 2,000 lawsuits against opioid manufacturers pending. Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter says the Oklahoma case has the potential to provide a foundation for future legal proceedings.
Hunter said, “That’s the message to other states: we did it in Oklahoma. You can do it elsewhere.”