Oklahoma to Receive $572 Million by Johnson & Johnson for Involvement in Opioid Crisis

Michelle Rosenker

August 30, 2019

In a bittersweet victory for those affected by the opioid epidemic, a judge in Oklahoma has ordered the nearly $100 billion company Johnson & Johnson to pay more than half a billion dollars to the state for their involvement in the opioid epidemic that has claimed the lives of thousands of Oklahoma residents.

According to the Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman, Johnson & Johnson “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.”

Johnson & Johnson denies any wrongdoing in the opioid epidemic, deflecting blame onto both the state of Oklahoma and the doctors who practice there throughout the seven-week long trial. Court documents allege that as a result of the actions of Johnson & Johnson, approximately 6,000 people died from opioid overdose.

The company is planning to appeal the ruling despite strong evidence showing that Johnson & Johnson did in fact both lie and omit information regarding the safety, effectiveness, and habit-forming potential of their top two opioid-based painkillers, hydrocodone and oxycodone. Throughout the duration of the trial, Johnson & Johnson has repeatedly denied all accusations and an attorney for the company even stated that hydrocodone and oxycodone are rarely abused in Oklahoma. Consider the following, as reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA):

  • Providers in Oklahoma wrote 88.1 prescriptions for opioids per every 100 people
  • This number is down 30percent from 2012, where providers were writing out 127 opioid prescriptions for every 100 people
  • There was a five-fold increase in Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) between 2004 and 2014, eventually equaling out to 8 newborns per every 100 newborns born with NAS in Oklahoma
  • Six out of ten poisoning deaths in Oklahoma included a prescription drug
  • Rates of heroin addiction increased between 2010 and 2012, which is often considered to be one of the first major peaks in the opioid epidemic

In 2017, more than 70,000 people died from drug overdoses in the United States. A whopping 47,000 of those deaths were caused by opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone. Not only are these two medications prominent in readily available in Oklahoma, but they are also just as easily accessible in other states, too. Stating the these medications are rarely abused in Oklahoma is simply untrue, as these specific medications and the abuse of them are adding to an epidemic that has now become bigger than the AIDS epidemic of the 1990s.

Why Is This Important?

 Since before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared an opioid epidemic in 2011, companies like Johnson & Johnson had already laid the groundwork in regards to the prescribing of opioid-based painkillers. Other companies, such as Purdue, Teva, and Endo, like Johnson & Johnson are accused of consistently telling providers that their patients would not become addicted to these opioid-based painkillers and that they can be prescribed freely. Specific to the Oklahoma case, the suits states that Johnson & Johnson told providers that their patients would have less than a 1percent chance of getting addicted to hydrocodone or oxycodone. They also stated that patients may develop a pseudo-addiction, where they could exhibit behaviors consistent with addiction, but providers were told to treat those symptoms by prescribing more opioids because it was more likely that patients were not getting enough medication to manage their pain.The suit states that in those situations, where patients would go back to providers asking for more painkillers prior to their prescription being up or requesting stronger opioids to manage pain, Johnson & Johnson directed providers to prescribe these individuals more hydrocodone or oxycodone.

There are several examples that show the gross negligence and manipulation behind the actions of Johnson & Johnson, as well as other major pharmaceutical companies, with regards to prescription opioids. However, what is most important is the potential of what can come from this one trial in Oklahoma. It is the first time that a major pharmaceutical company has been held responsible for a major role in the opioid epidemic and ordered to pay back reparations. This trial is set to serve as a benchmark for the treatment of other cases similar to this one, as evidence continues to unfold showing just how involved Big Pharma’s companies have been in the misuse, abuse, and dependence to prescription opioids. Currently, in places like Ohio, Delaware, and even Florida are seeking justice for the thousands of lives that have been lost due to the misinformation regularly fed to providers from pharmaceutical companies looking to push opioid-based products. With the country watching, these current lawsuits and those involved can prepare to experience similar outcomes, which can dramatically change the direction of the opioid crisis for the better.

Johnson & Johnson

Where is the Silver Lining?

The money that Johnson & Johnson is being ordered to pay back to the state of Oklahoma is set to be used to combat the opioid crisis. Originally, the state asked for $17 billion from the company, but the judge ruled against that sticker price due to the majority of it being requested for abatement across the next 30 years. Receiving much less than what was requested, Oklahoma will not be able to do nearly as much as they were hoping to do to reverse the negative effects of the opioid crisis, however there are a number of things that this money can be used for, including some (but not all) of the following:

  • Inpatient and outpatient treatment services
  • Treatment for babies with NAS
  • Public and physician education programs
  • Grief support groups
  • Data systems for prescription monitoring programs

There is no way that $572 million is going to cover all of these points, but it is a strong step in the right direction. This case offers hope for other states in the country that are looking to sure pharmaceutical companies for similar behaviors and brings the opioid epidemic to the forefront. Despite opioid addiction being one of the most widely discussed topics in the country, it is still stigmatized in many different ways. Trials such as these give the public an opportunity to learn more about addiction for the disease it is, which is a major benefit that can eventually save lives.

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