Oklahoma Ruling Sets the Stage for Pharma Cases to Come

On Aug. 26, a judge in Oklahoma ruled that drug giant Johnson & Johnson must pay $572 million to the state of Oklahoma, stating that the company had indeed marketed dangerous opioids misleadingly, contributing to the state’s own opioid crisis amid the larger nationwide one. This court decision is expected to be the first of many in the U.S. as states and individuals alike seek retribution from drug companies in response to skyrocketing drug-related deaths.

The opioid crisis, a topic which has dominated news cycles and political debate stages more than ever in recent years, began with the drugs’ early development in the 1990s, when little was known about opium’s addictive implications, and pharmaceutical companies marketed them as harmless. Immediately, prescriptions rose dramatically, leading to widespread addiction to both prescribed opioids—OxyContin, Vicodin and morphine, for example—and illegal varieties like fentanyl.

By 2017, Health and Human Services Secretary Eric Hargan declared opioid-related deaths a public health emergency, a statement renewed three times since. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 91 Americans die each day from opioid overdoses, prompting political action from the new Trump administration in 2016 to address and prevent further development of the disaster.

In addition to an overwhelming mortality rate surrounding opioid addiction, the crisis causes a sizable financial burden, with the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimating that “the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement” total $78.5 billion a year.

The state of Oklahoma has suffered massively in recent years, with an estimated 60 percent of the state’s 700 annual overdose deaths resulting from opioids, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health. Additionally, per the New York Times, 18 million prescriptions for opioids were written within a three-year period, over quadruple the state’s total population. This recent trial against Johnson & Johnson, prosecuted by Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, serves as an early response to these troubling statistics.

Originally, the plaintiffs sought $17.5 billion to be paid to the state over 30 years to aid “addiction-related needs,” including treatment, law enforcement and emergency care, reported the Washington Post[SH1] in August. The prosecution stated that Johnson & Johnson violated state public nuisance law, which prohibits any act that “annoys, injures or endangers the comfort, repose, health or safety of others,” seen in Title 50 of Oklahoma’s 2006 state statutes.

The 33-day trial’s result was revealed in Judge Balkman’s statement on Aug. 26, in which he stated that “defendants caused an opioid crisis that is evidenced by increased rates of addiction, overdose deaths and neonatal abstinence syndrome in Oklahoma.” Balkman declared Johnson & Johnson inarguably guilty of the nuisance charge.

The judge did not award the full $17.5 billion claim to the state, citing insufficient evidence to warrant such a massive settlement. Instead, he ruled that the pharmaceutical company owed $572,102,028 “to immediately remediate the nuisance.” Balkman seemed optimistic in his statement, noting that the statewide opioid crisis was, in his eyes, temporary and able to be solved through settlements to fund treatment and research for addicts and their families.

In response to the landmark ruling, Johnson & Johnson immediately announced they plan to appeal the decision. In an Aug. 26 statement, the company maintained that they hold no blame in the opioid crisis ravaging the country, focusing on their recent efforts to educate healthcare professionals to prevent and lessen American substance abuse and addiction.

Based on public reaction on social media and from news outlets, the majority of Americans seem supportive of Balkman’s decision to hold Johnson & Johnson liable in the crisis. This attitude is echoed in the halls of Ursuline, too.

Helen Emerson ’20 said, “[Drug companies] should be held financially responsible because they know the dangers of some of their products, but they still aggressively market them.”

Jenna Hansen ’20 agrees, noting the similarity to another product in the news: “The same way people are trying to hold Juul accountable for marketing to minors, big pharmaceutical companies should be punished for marketing opioids deceptively.”

However, not everyone thinks that drug giants like Johnson & Johnson are solely responsible for the crisis. Some physicians, for example, blame the healthcare system for incentivizing mass-sales of all prescription drugs. They suggest a more systematic, legislative overhaul to the system as a solution, rather than separate trials.

It is clear that with this trial and decision, Oklahoma has paved the way for more cities and states to pursue judicial ramifications against those responsible for the opioid crisis. In a broader sense, the case has opened a door to greater conversation and analysis of the crisis itself – including who is to blame and what can be done to end it.

Photo caption: Judge Thad Balkman delivering his August 26 decision condemning J&J’s involvement in the OK opioid crisis, courtesy of GQ

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