Opioid Ruling Won't Solve the Addiction Crisis

Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $572 million over its role in the epidemic.

Nate Jackson · Aug. 27, 2019

In a landmark ruling Monday, Johnson & Johnson was ordered by an Oklahoma judge to pay $572 million in damages over its role in the opioid-addiction crisis in Oklahoma alone. Judge Thad Balkman agreed with Oklahoma GOP Attorney General Mike Hunter that Johnson & Johnson’s “misleading marketing and promotion of opioids created a nuisance” in the state, finding the company liable under more flexible public-nuisance laws rather than product-liability ones. Never mind that Johnson & Johnson accounts for about 1% of Oklahoma’s opioid market. Or that government regulators approved the drugs for sale only through government-approved pharmacies.

Oklahoma has also already reached an $85 million settlement with Teva and a $270 million settlement with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma over opioids. But litigation is widespread. The Wall Street Journal notes, “More than 2,000 states and municipalities have sued opioid makers and distributors in federal litigation in Ohio. Another 250 or so have filed lawsuits in state courts where they hope local judges and juries will provide a more sympathetic audience.”

For years now, the U.S. has found itself facing a true opioid crisis. Tens of thousands of Americans are dying of overdoses each year — in numbers exceeding those killed in car crashes or by so-called “gun violence” (homicide and suicide, combined).

Who’s to blame? Two years ago, our Arnold Ahlert wrote:

The foundations of our current opioid crisis were laid back in the late 1990s. Pharmaceutical companies, doctors and government were all involved. Drug companies misleadingly promoted opioids to treat chronic pain, and government officials at different levels bought into that promotion, requiring insurance policies to cover the drugs. Government also pushed doctors to prescribe opioids via a “Pain as the Fifth Vital Sign” campaign run in the 1990s and 2000s.

Pharmaceutical companies are popular bogeymen. The compelling narrative is that faceless corporations are grossly profiting from the suffering of sick people. There is also serious cronyism afoot as “Big Pharma” tries to rig government regulation and interference in its favor and works in cahoots with insurance companies to determine what patient gets which drug and for how much.

But that’s a black-and-white view of a gray issue. American pharmaceutical companies are also doing the lion’s share of worldwide drug development. Research and development isn’t free, and the relatively few drugs that do make it to market after years of work and government hoops must cover resources put into the many drugs that don’t make it to market. Prices are controlled in other countries, so unfortunately the American consumer bears the brunt of the cost.

As for addicts, well, it’s complicated. A patient who takes more than the prescribed dosage only to find himself addicted and seeking the next high bears responsibility for himself. Doctors who prescribe 30 days of opioids when three days and some Ibuprofen will do likewise own some blame. And now we have tort lawyers and power-grabbing attorneys general swooping in to increase their money or power as a result of a crisis. Bankrupting America’s pharmaceutical companies won’t put a dent in the profits of your local meth or fentanyl dealer.

On a final note, it’s worth mentioning that $200 million from Purdue’s settlement will go to the National Center for Addiction Studies and Treatment at Oklahoma State University, where AG Hunter’s son is employed. Another $60 million went to trial lawyers. Again, the word cronyism comes to mind.

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