A Win for Oklahoma in the Battle Against the Opioid Epidemic

Coming from a small, rural town in Northeast Ohio, I know far too well how dangerous and devastating the on-going opioid epidemic is. Ohio, according to the CDC, was tied with Kentucky for most drug overdose deaths in 2015, ranking 3rd with 29.9 per 100,000 people. My heart goes out, truly, to anyone and everyone who has suffered and been negatively affected by this crisis. Some consolation can be found, however, in the pursuit of justice. 

In Oklahoma, their state prosecutors and the Attorney General Mike Hunter, are leading the charge with a successful civil suit as of last Monday, August 26th. 

Judge Thad Balkman, in Norman, Oklahoma, ruled last Monday that Johnson & Johnson, renowned producer of baby powder and baby shampoo, was responsible for creating a “public nuisance” and consequently must pay $572 million to the state of Oklahoma to cover one year of the state’s opioid recovery plan. This is less than the $17.5 billion Oklahoma wanted, but this victory is monumental regardless. First of all, this is the first case ruling of its kind. This case proves that we can hold a drug manufacturer responsible for their hand in the opioid crisis. 

Secondly, this benefits lawsuits across the country, especially in my neck of the woods. 2,000 cases filed against Johnson & Johsnon and the like are pending in Ohio as part of the National Prescription Opiate Litigation .

Oklahoma had the country’s  third highest rate of long acting opioid prescription in 2015 with an average rate of 104.1 opioid prescriptions dispensed per 100 people from 2014-2016. Also as of 2015, Oklahoma is tied with Arizona for most drug overdose deaths, ranking 17th in the country.

Over 6,000 people have died in Oklahoma as a result of this crisis. This number only scratches the surface of the lives affected and destroyed as a result. 

Judge Balkman agreed with the Oklahoma state government, finding that Johnson & Johsnon “caused an opioid crisis that is evidenced by increased rates of addiction, overdose deaths and neonatal abstinence syndrome in Oklahoma,'' and had put forth “false, misleading, and dangerous marketing campaigns” causing “exponentially increasing rates of addiction [and] overdose deaths.”

Johnson & Johnson vehemently disagrees with the state and has announced plans to appeal this judgement. Their attorney shifted the blame, stating that “litigation is not the answer” and that that opioid crisis is “largely driven by illegally manufactured drugs that are coming into the country from Mexico and elsewhere.”

Johnson & Johnson, a household name in the United States, has been heavily involved with the distribution of opiates for years, according to an article by the New York Times. Their subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, produces a fentanyl patch, and Joshnons & Johnson supplies 60% of opiate ingredients used for opioids by other drug companies. 

Johnson & Johnson argued that they could not be blamed for the epidemic because their drugs were approved by various drug agencies; that its fentanyl patch had printed warnings of potential abuse and addiction; and that the state did not identify one doctor they had misled. 

Johnson & Johnson sales people visited Oklahoma doctors 150,000 times over eleven years. That’s 37 doctors a day. As of 2012, there were only 7,552 active physicians in Oklahoma. At that rate, each doctor got 19 visits over eleven years about prescribing opiates. 

Johnson & Johsnon is not the only company involved with this drug crisis. Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals of Jerusalem settled with Oklahoma to the tune of $270 million and $85 million, respectively.

While it’s possible Johsnon & Johsnon can win their appeal, this appears to be a watershed moment in the midst of the drug epidemic. Finally, power is back in the hands of the people.