Johnson & Johnson is in hot water once again. Not due to their asbestos-containing baby powder. Not because of their FDA-banned surgical mesh. Not even because of their shady attempts to influence regulatory panelists. This time, it’s because of their role in fueling the opioid crisis. As the death toll continues to skyrocket, states are taking legal action against pharmaceutical companies and the criminals running them.
Johnson & Johnson Latest Company Facing Charges for Role in Opioid Epidemic
Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the makers of Oxycontin, was also targeted in the upcoming trial, but settled out of court leaving Johnson & Johnson as the primary target of the investigation along with Teva Pharmaceuticals. And although Johnson & Johnson is best known for products like bandages and baby shampoo, over 90% of their profit actually comes from medical devices and prescription drugs.
Johnson & Johnson helped create the worst public health crisis in United States history,” said Bradley Beckworth, a private attorney representing the state in a lawsuit that seeks to hold U.S. companies accountable for the results of the epidemic in Oklahoma. “They grew the demand. They spread the lies and they fed it with their own product. . . . We’ll show that at trial.”
Prosecutors also say that Johnson & Johnson targeted children. A court document says,
In perhaps one of the most reprehensible documents produced by defendants, this shows the depths to which J & J would go to earn a profit on their products — target potential ‘replacement customers’ at an early age to get them using (and addicted to) opioids.”
Beckworth compared the tactics to those used by the tobacco industry, commenting that “marketing opioids to cancer patients and surgery patients was not enough. They wanted to expand the customer base.” Johnson & Johnson denies the claims, although the state attorney insists that Johnson & Johnson was a major contributor to a pharmaceutical crisis that’s estimated to cost Oklahoma over $8.7 billion.
Through its pharmaceutical subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson has sold Duragesic, Nucynta, and Ultram – all powerful and addictive pain relief drugs. Of more interest are the company’s other subsidiaries, Tasmanian Alkaloids and Noramco. Tasmanian is the largest producer of thebaine, an important ingredient used in opioids that’s similar to morphine. Noramco refines thebaine and other narcotics for use in oxycodone and other opioid drugs.
What’s especially interesting about this case is the way in which Oklahoma prosecutors are pursuing it. According to The Washington Post:
Unless there is another settlement or Balkman throws out the case before the May 28 trial date, arguments will center on Oklahoma’s novel use of its “public nuisance” law. Some of the more than 1,500 other jurisdictions around the country that have filed lawsuits against drug companies have made the same claim, alleging that the marketing, sales and distribution of opioids hurt people.
Public nuisances in Oklahoma typically have been places where activities negatively affect others — a neighborhood crack house or a factory that pollutes a waterway, said Andrew M. Coats, a professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.
‘I think they’re cutting new ground. I’ve never seen one that works this way,” Coats said. “But that doesn’t mean it won’t.’”
Like many other companies profiting from the sale and manufacturing of opioid drugs, Johnson & Johnson is accused of hiding the true risks associated with their products and aggressively marketing them to people who didn’t need them. The trial will be televised live later this month.
McKesson’s Sweetheart Deal
News leading up to the trial comes in the wake of a national movement to hold drug companies and the people behind them responsible. Earlier this month, West Virginia settled a case against the McKesson Corporation, the largest drug distributor in America. Communities were devastated as the company shipped almost 100 million doses of opioids over a 6-year period.
One county, with a population of less than 25,000, received 1.2 million doses of hydrocodone and oxycodone over a 5-year period.
To put that into perspective, that’s enough pills to give every man, woman, and child in Boone County over 50 doses of opioids.
State lawmakers say that McKesson knew the drugs could not have all been going to legitimate patients but continued to funnel them into West Virginia in order to increase profits. Before the case could go to trial, McKesson reached a settlement in the amount of $37 million. The company continues to maintain its innocence.
But some state legislators weren’t happy with the deal – and for good reason. Although McKesson will be required to pay the $37 million over the next 5 years, financial documents show that the company generated over $208 BILLION in revenue last year alone. The settlement averages to about $6.2 million for each of the 6 years that McKesson flooded the state with copious amounts of dangerous drugs; 0.0029% of their annual revenue.
According to The New York Times, Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Manchin called the settlement a “sweetheart deal” that “sells out” the state and equates to “pennies on the dollar to what McKesson cost our state.” And his anger is justified.
Purdue Pharma Avoids Court Once Again
Purdue, who were originally named in the Oklahoma lawsuit alongside Johnson & Johnson, was able to avoid an embarrassing public trial or admission of any guilt by settling for $270 million. The Sackler family, who owns Purdue but were not named in the lawsuit, will pay $75 million in personal funds under the deal, though they were paid well over $4 billion by the company between 2008 and 2016.
This will have a major effect on the outcome of over 1,600 existing lawsuits currently pending against opioid manufacturers. So far, the money from settlements with these companies will all be used to help address the addiction crisis, including research and treatment facilities in the areas most affected.
Purdue was able to avoid the televised trial largely in part because of their potential to declare bankruptcy before the trial, which would leave the state with little ability to impose financial penalties. But Johnson & Johnson is a much larger company, worth over $80 billion in annual revenue, and is unlikely to make a deal before the May 28th trial date.
Lawmakers Stand Up to Big Pharma
There are 2 things we should take away from this: first, it’s important to know how these companies really operate, and just how far they’ll go to increase profits. It’s easy to trust a household name like Johnson & Johnson, whose original 1943 credo says:
We are responsible to the communities in which we live and work and to the world community as well.”
But the truth is that the company known for Tylenol, Band-Aid, and “No More Tears” baby shampoo has a large and sinister underbelly. One that targets children and vulnerable communities with dangerous and extremely addictive drugs just to make a buck. You can vote with your dollars and it’s important that we stand against companies who put profits over people.
The second conclusion is a much more positive one: our representatives are finally taking action. In the United States, you are now more likely to die of an accidental opioid overdose than you are to die in a car accident. The death toll and rates of addiction have skyrocketed while shady corporations run by evil people continue to push their poisons by bribing doctors and smothering safety studies.
But lawmakers have heard the cries of the American people for justice, and at least 32 states have filed lawsuits against those who have played a role in the opioid epidemic. Doctors who abuse their prescribing power and executives who have overseen bribery and lies are being sentenced to prison, and once-powerful pharmaceutical companies are being reduced to nothing in the wake of this new crusade.
Our voices CAN make a difference. When we lean on our representatives hard enough, they can and will do the right thing. Companies like Johnson & Johnson have willfully allowed people to die as they watched their profits climb, but those days are over. Nicolas Terry, a law professor who has compared the opioid settlements to the massive tobacco settlement in 1998, feels the same way.
This is the starting gun,” he says. “This is the beginning of the endgame.”