After eight weeks of testimony, Oklahoma Judge Thad Balkman ruled this week that Johnson & Johnson (J&J) was guilty of “duping” doctors into overprescribing opioids throughout Oklahoma. This makes J&J the first pharmaceutical company found guilty of creating and perpetuating the opioid epidemic, the country’s largest public health crisis since the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.
Oklahoma State prosecutors sued J&J for $17.8 billion in reimbursement for money taxpayers have spent on opioid addiction, treatments, and related deaths. Judge Balkman ordered the company to pay $527 million in recompense. In 2018, Johnson & Johnson made $81.6 billion in profits
Mike Hunter, Oklahoma Attorney General, accused J&J and other pharmaceutical manufacturers for overstating the benefits of opioids and downplaying their dependency risks. He called the company a “kingpin” in the opioid epidemic. Oklahoma prosecutors claimed these companies flooded the state with pushy sales reps who used flawed studies to encourage doctors to prescribe their opioid-based pain patches and pills.
Other pharmaceutical companies that were also named as defendants in the lawsuit settled before the trial began. This includes Purdue Pharma LP, which agreed to pay $270 million, and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., which settled for $85 million.
Why the lawsuit matters
This ruling is expected to set precedent for the thousands of pharmaceutical companies facing lawsuits from cities, counties, and states across the country for their part in the opioid epidemic. According to prosecutors, the message being sent is: the pharmaceutical companies will receive a slap on the wrist.
After the ruling, J&J shares increased 5.4 percent. Wells Fargo analyst Dave Maris wrote to investors, “The market will extrapolate this as a positive to the other opioid-related stocks.”
J&J wasn’t the only pharmaceutical company to see an increase in shares after the ruling was handed down. Teva saw an increase of 10 percent, Endo International PLC shares grew as much as 16 percent, and Cardinal Health Inc. saw an increase of 2.3 percent as well.
J&J legal representatives believe the company has strong grounds for an appeal. Michael Ullman, J&J counsel said in a statement about the company’s opioid production and marketing unit, Jannsen, “Jannsen did not cause the opioid crisis in Oklahoma, and neither the facts nor the law support this outcome.”
J&J attorney Larry Ottaway said, “The state would have you believe we marshaled an army to come here to mislead doctors about the risks and benefits of opioids.”
The impact of the opioid epidemic
Between 1999 and 2017, opioids were responsible for more than 400,000 opioid-related deaths, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). During this time period, state prosecutors claim that 4,000 Oklahomans have died from opioid overdoses or have become addicted to the drugs.
Addiction is not a choice. If you need help dealing with an opioid dependency, seek help. Medicare covers substance abuse treatment. To find a free rehab or detox facility near you, visit the American Addiction Centers.