Johnson & Johnson ruling may set the stage for holding drug companies and others accountable for the opioid epidemic

Published 10:02 am Monday, September 2, 2019

It is impossible to put a price on the lives lost and disrupted by opioid addiction. But in a courtroom in Oklahoma this week, a state judge nonetheless ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for its role in the state’s devastating opioid epidemic.
The historic verdict — the first legal judgment against a major drugmaker for its involvement in the nation’s opioid crisis — sends an overdue message to dozens of companies that produce or distribute the addictive drug about the consequences of unacceptable corporate behavior.
The opioid epidemic has many enablers. And we’d start where many others hesitate to tread by saying that pervasiveness of the problem reveals a deep and widespread sickness in our society. Too many Americans fall through the cracks, face hopelessness and end up with compounded problems of addiction.
Add to this mix drug companies that seem to have understated the danger of opioid use to doctors and patients and allowed sales to explode to a level that it seems obvious now should have sounded alarms throughout the industry.
Over the past two decades, the alarming rise in opioid-related overdoses nationally has claimed more lives than car crashes, and contributed to the deaths of 6,100 Oklahomans from prescription-drug overdoses between 2000 and 2017, according to state prosecutors.
In addition to the human toll, there are other costs: lost productivity, emergency treatments, lost jobs and even the expense of caring for children whose parents died from opioid overdoses. In a small measure, this verdict promises corporate accountability and restitution.
For many patients, addiction started when they took the drug for chronic pain. They obtained legally prescribed opioids and entered an odyssey that always ends in destruction. Along the way drug manufacturers, distributors, doctors and pharmacists all contributed to the problem.
This is the takeaway from the testimony and evidence presented against Johnson & Johnson in the Oklahoma trial. Lawyers for the state successfully used Oklahoma’s uniquely broad public nuisance law against Johnson & Johnson. The state claimed that the company’s aggressive and misleading marketing to prescribing doctors and the public created a public nuisance and the impression that opioids posed little addiction risk and were an appropriate treatment for chronic pain.
Johnson & Johnson has already indicated that it will appeal this verdict, which is just a fraction of the $17.5 billion that the state had sought to abate the costs of addiction treatment and establish overdose prevention and education programs.
It’s too early to know if the verdict will stand, but one thing should be clear: Companies, investors and the doctors, pharmacists and others in the distribution chain are now on notice that they could face significant costs.
We suspect that alone will drive decisions because it already has. While Johnson & Johnson fought it out, other defendants in Oklahoma settled. Previously, Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries agreed to pay $270 million and $85 million, respectively, with neither company admitting wrongdoing. And the Sackler family is poised to relinquish ownership of Purdue and pay $3 billion to settle thousands of other state and federal lawsuits, according to published reports.
At the very least, the Johnson & Johnson ruling ought to change marketing behavior industrywide, and compel doctors, pharmacists and others in the supply chain to rethink how they allowed this epidemic to explode.
Across the country, more than 2,000 cases against drugmakers, retail pharmacy chains and distributors have been consolidated in a federal court in Ohio, with a trial set for October. And the claims are quite similar: that professionals who should have known the risks to patients failed to do enough to head off this public health crisis. The result will be change on a national scale.
Chronic pain is debilitating. Patients require relief. The cure, however, became more devastating than the pain, leaving in its wake thousands to deal with a hard-to-shake addiction. We will leave it to the courts to determine liability in these cases, and we hope that in this process personal responsibility doesn’t get lost even as drugmakers and others face their days in court.
Accountability is necessary, especially when large companies were making a killing off of what turned out to be a deadly drug epidemic. This case is the start, but we are far from the end of this saga.
(The Dallas Morning News)

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