Johnson & Johnson ordered to pay $572M for fueling Oklahoma’s opioid crisis

An Oklahoma judge has found Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries helped fuel the state’s opioid drug crisis and ordered the consumer products giant to pay $ 572 million US to help address the problem.

Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman’s ruling followed the first state opioid case to make it to trial and could help shape negotiations over roughly 1,500 similar lawsuits filed by state, local and tribal governments consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio.

“The opioid crisis has ravaged the state of Oklahoma,” Balkman said, before announcing the verdict. “It must be abated immediately.”

The award was well below what some investors and analysts feared, in what had been a $ 17 billion lawsuit viewed as a bellwether for other litigation nationwide over the opioid epidemic.

“The expectation was this was going to be a $ 1.5 billion to $ 2 billion fine,” said Jared Holz, health-care strategist for Jefferies. “Five hundred and seventy-two million dollars is a much lower number than had been feared.” It represents less than one per cent of the company’s annual sales, which were $ 81.6 billion in 2018, according to its website.

Johnon & Johnson shares rose five per cent in extended trading following the decision. Shares of other drugmakers that sell opioid pain treatments, including Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. and Endo International Plc, also rose after hours.

Johnson & Johnson says it will appeal and seek to put payment of the award on hold during the appeal process.

Oklahoma argued the company aggressively marketed opioids for years in a way that overstated their effectiveness and underplayed the addiction risk.

Judge Thad Balkman, seen here during the trial in May, declared before his ruling that ‘the opioid crisis has ravaged the state of Oklahoma.’ (Chris Landsberger/Pool/Reuters)

A ‘kingpin’ company

Oklahoma previously reached a $ 270 million settlement with OxyContin-maker Purdue Pharma and an $ 85 million deal with Israeli-owned Teva Pharmaceutical Industries.

Oklahoma argued the companies and their subsidiaries created a public nuisance by launching an aggressive and misleading marketing campaign that overstated how effective the drugs were for treating chronic pain and understated the risk of addiction. Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter says opioid overdoses killed 4,653 people in the state from 2007 to 2017.

Hunter has 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.

“They’ve been the principal origin for the active pharmaceutical ingredient in prescription opioids in the country for the last two decades,” Hunter said, after the trial ended July 15. “It is one of the most important elements of causation with regard to why the defendants … are responsible for the epidemic in the country and in Oklahoma.”

A worker stands next to a crushing machine in a warehouse at Tasmanian Alkaloids, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, which processes thebaine poppies, the main ingredient in slow-release pain medication, in this June 2014 photo. (David Gray/Reuters)

Attorneys for the company have maintained they were part of a lawful and heavily regulated industry subject to strict federal oversight, including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the Food and Drug Administration during every step of the supply chain. Lead attorney Larry Ottaway said during closing arguments that opioid drugs serve a critical health need — to address chronic pain that affects thousands of Oklahomans every day.

“This problem of untreated chronic pain afflicts people here in Oklahoma,” Ottaway said.

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 $ 12.6 billion for 20 years and $ 17.5 billion over 30 years. Attorneys for Johnson & Johnson have said that estimate is wildly inflated.

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