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Major pharmaceutical companies have been putting profits before patients for far too long. And while some companies still seem to be beating the system, others are finally being held accountable. In today’s news, we’re going to give you an update on a few stories we’ve been following for some time now, and how the greed and lies of big pharma are finally coming to light.
First, Johnson & Johnson finds themselves in even more trouble with new discoveries about asbestos contamination and over $100 million in settlements over their surgical mesh. The company was not the only one to lose big bucks as several major players in the opioid crisis made last-minute settlements to avoid trial.
Finally, more evidence has been found proving that Zantac may be causing cancer, forcing manufacturers and distributors to completely remove it from store shelves.
Johnson & Johnson Caught in Their Own Lies
A little over a year ago, we published a story about how Johnson & Johnson’s talcum products – like Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower – contained asbestos. The company denied any wrongdoing and even tried to hide the evidence. Less than two weeks after Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky said “we unequivocally believe that our talc and our baby powder does not contain asbestos,” the FDA discovered the cancer-causing contaminant in a bottle of baby powder tested by the department.
The result was a recall of more than 30,000 bottles of baby powder, although company representatives have insisted that the test was an isolated incident and refuse to recall other batches or talc products. The company runs a sponsored website called factsabouttalc.com, which they have used to try and earn back consumer trust. The page currently features information about the recall yet also features a message from Gorsky assuring consumers that their talc is safe.
Although Johnson’s Baby Powder accounts for only a small percent of their nearly $80 billion annual revenue, it is one of the most widely used personal care products worldwide. With one of the most recognizable fragrances in the world, the powder has been used for infants in diapers, as a feminine hygiene product, to prevent chafing, and as an all-purpose freshener.
And its users invariably inhale the carcinogenic, airborne powder.
Johnson & Johnson is currently facing over 15,000 court cases claiming that their talc products caused the plaintiff’s cancer. But these lawsuits are just the tip of the iceberg, as the company is also dealing with lawsuits regarding surgical mesh, antipsychotic medication, and opioids.
Earlier this month, a jury awarded $8 billion to a Maryland man who said that the company’s antipsychotic drug Risperdal had caused him to grow breasts. The plaintiff, Nicholas Murray, was only 9 years old when pediatricians prescribed the drug. There are thousands of similar cases claiming that Risperdal was marketed without sufficient warnings about the potential of extreme side effects.
The drug can create elevated levels of a hormone called prolactin. In men, the presence of prolactin can lead to the development of female breast tissue, a condition known as gynecomastia.
“This jury, as have other juries in other litigations, once again imposed punitive damages on a corporation that valued profits over safety and profits over patients. Johnson & Johnson and Janssen chose billions over children,” said Murray’s lawyers in a statement.
With similarly harsh verdicts from juries in recent months, Johnson & Johnson is now looking for ways to mitigate its losses. Last year, the company was ordered to pay 4.69 billion to a group of 22 women who said that talcum products caused their ovarian cancer. A few months ago, an Oklahoma judge found Johnson and Johnson guilty of fueling the opioid epidemic, ordering the company to pay $572 million in damages.
Now, the company is looking to settle. Although they are actively fighting current rulings and denying any wrongdoing, Johnson & Johnson settled a case involving their surgical mesh for nearly $117 million. Although they are still claiming innocence, the settlement follows a rare decision by the FDA to prohibit the sale of all surgical mesh, a major blow to manufacturers.
Earlier this month, Johnson & Johnson settled with 2 Ohio counties for over $20 million. The move allows them to avoid another damaging and expensive trial like the one in Oklahoma this summer. But the company is not the only big player looking to pay their way out of accepting responsibility.
Opioid Manufacturers Scramble to Settle Before Federal Trials
Just hours before the start of a landmark federal opioid trial in Ohio – the first of its kind – 3 distributors and one manufacturer settled for $260 million, narrowly avoiding trial. McKesson, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, and Teva struck the deal around 1am the morning before trial, ensuring that they would not become the first casualties in the coming onslaught of local and federal cases surrounding the opioid epidemic.
According to The Wall Street Journal, this could pave the way for a proposed national settlement totaling over $45 billion:
Lawyers for the plaintiffs and companies said the settlement could be an important step toward a multibillion-dollar deal that brings closure to 2,500 lawsuits and sends needed money to communities hard-hit by opioid addiction. Municipalities have balked at a comprehensive settlement negotiated by state attorneys general that includes $22 billion in cash and up to $26 billion in donated addiction-treatment drugs and services, saying that it isn’t enough money and that they want some control over how it is spent.”
The trial would have been the first to expose the truth about the role of drug distributors in fueling the deadly crisis. While some states support a massive federal settlement, others are more wary. The proposal would bring an end to all opioid litigation against AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson, Teva Pharmaceutical, and Johnson & Johnson.
Proponents of the deal say that this would help avoid a long trial and appeals process. It would also make money available that states, cities, and tribes desperately need right now to address the ongoing issue. Opponents of the deal are primarily concerned with the structuring of the deal. In its current form, companies would pay out the settlement money over the course of nearly two decades, even though communities need the money now to start administering treatment.
There’s also a fear that the money will not be distributed fairly. Although the deal would ensure that the money was used to treat and combat opioid addiction (unlike the $206 billion tobacco settlement of the 90s, in which much of the money was used for other budgetary purposes), areas hit hardest feel they may not get their fair share.
If the money is divided by population, there are many states and counties who would suffer. States like Oklahoma and West Virginia have been hit especially hard and may require more infrastructure than larger states. In looking at the data, it seems rural communities were most vulnerable.
States with rural populations were clearly targeted, and opioid deaths in those regions reflect the flood of drugs distributed. For West Virginia, there were 66.5 pills distributed for every single resident each year. They were followed by Kentucky with 63.3, South Carolina with 58, Tennessee with 57.7, and Nevada with 54.7. West Virginia had the highest number of opioid deaths in the nation during this period.
Certain counties were specifically targeted, with manufacturers, distributors, doctors, and pharmacies pumping ungodly amounts of dangerous drugs into the population. From 2006 to 2012, Norton, VA distributed 306 pills per person per year. Martinsville, VA received 242 per person. In West Virginia, Mingo County distributed 203 opioid pills per person each year.
And just a few distributors were responsible for pushing the vast majority of these drugs. Just 6 companies distributed 75% of the opioid pills from 2006 to 2012:
- Cardinal Health
McKesson distributed 14.1 billion pills. Walgreens and Cardinal Health distributed 12.6 billion and 10.7 billion pills, respectively.
While no amount of money will fix the damage that’s been done, it’s encouraging to see states finally taking a hardline stance against pharmaceutical corruption. And there’s at least one more promising development when it comes to exposing the deceit and corruption of the pharmaceutical industry.
Zantac Finally Pulled from Shelves
We reported last month that the FDA had failed to issue a recall or the popular heartburn medicine Zantac after discovering that the drug may be causing cancer. Since then, the drug has been pulled by CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens, and WalMart. Last week, Sanofi finally recalled Zantac in the U.S. and Canada.
The issue with Zantac and ranitidine (its generic name) is the presence of a cancer-causing contaminant called N-nitrosodimethylamine, or NDMA. Earlier this month, the FDA announced that it had found “unacceptable levels” of NDMA in samples of drugs containing ranitidine.
NDMA is an industrial byproduct that can often be found in cured meats like bacon. The FDA says that it is “reasonably safe” to ingest up to one microgram a day. But safety testing has found levels significantly higher. In last year’s valsartan recall, the FDA found up to 17 micrograms of NDMA per dose. Valisure, a pharmacy that tests all drugs it distributes, found that Zantac had NDMA levels reaching 3,000 micrograms.
Valisure petitioned the FDA to recall all forms of ranitidine, though the agency has yet to take any such measures. They claim that NDMA may be “inherent” in the ranitidine molecule and have urged regulators to recall the drug until its safety can be guaranteed. But the FDA, as usual, seems apathetic about consumer safety.
FDA spokesman Jeremy Kahn said in a statement that “the FDA will take appropriate measures based on the results of the ongoing investigation.”
There Is HOPE for the Future
While these violations of morality and ethics in the pharmaceutical have become a terrible scourge on the world, there is a silver lining: exposure. For years and years, these companies have been able to hide in the shadows, manipulating regulators and consumers to generate more money. But people are finally starting to see the truth.
The Sackler family may go to prison or they may escape with their billions, but their reputation as death merchants will follow them to the grave. Johnson & Johnson has tried desperately to present themselves as a family-friendly seller of consumer products, despite earning 90% of their profits from drugs and surgical equipment. Now, the name is synonymous with lawsuits, addiction, and cancer. Sanofi, a prominent vaccine manufacturer, just pulled one of their landmark drugs off the shelves because of the cancer risk.
The truth is that these companies will probably be fine. Despite losing billions in market cap and spending billions more on settlements and litigation, pharmaceutical giants like Johnson & Johnson probably aren’t going anywhere… for now.
Modern medicine has undoubtedly produced life-saving medicine and procedures that make our society better. But a lack of proper oversight combined with the massive influence these companies have over regulators and government officials has led to a terrifying world in which our medicine is literally killing us.
Stories like these are the first step to changing that. We need to first expose these companies and the people that run them so that we can make substantial, fundamental changes to the way we do things. People need to see the problem before they can fix it. Finally, it seems their eyes are being opened.