A brand best known for soap and baby powder has become the first drug manufacturer successfully sued for its part in the country's opioid crisis. Johnson & Johnson has been ordered to pay the state of Oklahoma $572 million to help clear up the mess it created – and additional payments are still to be negotiated.
State prosecutors accused the company of spearheading a years-long PR and marketing campaign that underestimated the drugs' harm, oversold their benefits, and funded research to promote their products. Judge Thad Balkman ended up siding with the prosecutors after a seven-week, jury-absent trial, calling the defendant's opioid marketing "false, deceptive and misleading" in the 42-page decision (via The New York Times).
"Based upon my finding that the Defendants' false, misleading, and dangerous marketing campaigns have caused exponentially increasing rates of addiction, overdose deaths, and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, I conclude these are unlawful acts which annoys, injures, or endangers the comfort, repose, health, or safety of others," Balkman said in the decision.
The judge found Johnson & Johnson guilty of minimizing safety issues, taking data out of context, omitting information, and overstating the drugs' safety and efficacy.
As well as disseminating misleading information to discourage caution in the prescription of narcotics, the company's sales representatives were accused of having targeted high-prescribing professionals to boost demand for opioid products. There were approximately 150,000 company visits to Oklahoma doctors between 2000 and 2011, the prosecution's evidence found.
While the company has hit back at the decision – saying that since 2008, it has contributed less than 1 percent to the painkiller market (including generics) – the state referred to Johnson & Johnson as the "kingpin". State lawyers argued it supplies 60 percent of the opiate ingredients used by other drug manufacturers through poppies it oversees in Tasmania. The prosecution provided enough evidence to declare Johnson & Johnson a "public nuisance", Balkman ruled.
The company has been ordered to pay $572 million, money that will go towards treatment, overdose prevention, and any other opioid epidemic-related costs. Although the ruling is well below the $17 billion aimed for, there are additional payments still to be negotiated.
Representatives for Johnson & Johnson said its products cannot be directly linked to any deaths because they had been approved by federal regulators. Sabrina Strong, a lawyer working for the company, said: "We have sympathy for all who suffer from substance abuse. But Johnson & Johnson did not cause the opioid abuse crisis here in Oklahoma or anywhere in this country."
They have appealed the decision.
As a first-of-its-kind trial, it will be interesting to see what will happen with the 2,000 or so opioid lawsuits still in the pipeline – and whether other judges will follow Balkman's lead.