According to the ruling, which also cites the company's Janssen pharmaceuticals division, the US$572 million will go towards care for a generation of addicts, families and communities affected by the crisis.

By Ian Horswill


Posted on August 27, 2019

Drugmaker Johnson & Johnson has been blamed for fuelling the US state of Oklahoma’s opioid addiction and ordered to pay US$572 million in damages.

Immediately after the judgement, the pharmaceutical giant, which has its headquarters in New Brunswick, New Jersey, said it would appeal.

The civil trial was the first opioid case to go to court after Oklahoma settled with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma for US$270 million and Teva Pharmaceutical for US$85 million, leaving Johnson & Johnson as the lone defendant.

Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman’s ruling could help shape negotiations over roughly 1,500 similar opioid lawsuits filed by state, local and tribal governments consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio, which is due to go to trial in October unless a settlement can be reached, AP reported.

Balkman said prosecutors had demonstrated that Johnson & Johnson contributed to a “public nuisance” in its deceptive promotion of highly addictive prescription painkillers.

“Those actions compromised the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans,” he said.

According to the ruling, which also cites the company’s Janssen pharmaceuticals division, the cash will go towards care for a generation of opioid addicts, families and communities affected by the crisis.

“The defendants Janssen and Johnson & Johnson’s misleading marketing and promotion of opioids created a nuisance,” Balkman said.

“Specifically, defendants caused an opioid crisis that is evidenced by increased rates of addiction, overdose deaths and neonatal abstinence syndrome in Oklahoma.”

Johnson & Johnson was the first pharmaceutical company taken to court over the US opioid crisis. Opioids were involved in almost 400,000 overdose deaths from 1999 to 2017, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 2000, some 6,000 people in Oklahoma have died from opioid overdoses, according to the state’s lawyers.

The headquarters of Johnson & Johnson in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Prosecutors had sought US$17 billion in damages from Johnson & Johnson.

Johnson & Johnson argued that the law was being inappropriately applied and that its products had a very small role in the addiction epidemic in Oklahoma and nationally.

Balkman said Johnson & Johnson had promoted its drugs telling doctors and patients that pain was not being treated enough and that “there was a low risk of abuse and a low danger” in the drugs themselves.

“The defendants used the phrase ‘pseudoaddiction’ to convince doctors that patients who exhibited signs of addiction… were not actually suffering from addiction, but from the undertreatment of pain,” he said in his decision.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said opioid overdoses killed 4,653 people in the state from 2007 to 2017.

Hunter called Johnson & Johnson a “kingpin” company that was motivated by greed. He specifically pointed to two former Johnson & Johnson subsidiaries, Noramco and Tasmanian Alkaloids, which produced much of the raw opium used by other manufacturers to produce the drugs.

Oklahoma pursued the case under the state’s public nuisance statute and presented the judge with a plan to abate the crisis that would cost between US$12.6 billion for 20 years and US$17.5 billion over 30 years. Attorneys for J&J have said that estimate is wildly inflated.