J&J ordered to pay $846 million for role in opioid crisis

The pharmaceutical company says it will appeal the judgement

A judge has fined drug manufacturer Johnson & Johnson and its pharmaceutical subsidiary Janssen US$572 million (AUD$846 million) after finding the company breached the state’s public nuisance law in promoting opioid products while downplaying their risks and overstating their efficacy.

Judge Thad Balkman of the Cleveland County District Court in Oklahoma, US, found Johnson & Johnson had engaged in “false, misleading, and dangerous marketing campaigns” that “caused exponentially increasing rates of addiction, overdose deaths, and neonatal abstinence syndrome”.

The payout will be used by the state to roll out one year’s worth of opioid disorder treatment programs and services, including pain management programs, targeted naloxone distribution, prenatal screening and medical treatment for infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome.

However it falls short of the $17 billion fine that Oklahoma state had reportedly sought to pay for services it said it would need to repair the damage done by the opioid epidemic over the next 20 years.

Judge Balkman said the state did not present sufficient evidence of time and costs necessary to abate the opioid crisis beyond the first year.

Johnson & Johnson and its Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies say they will appeal the judgement.

“Janssen did not cause the opioid crisis in Oklahoma, and neither the facts nor the law support this outcome,” said Michael Ullmann, Executive Vice President, General Counsel, Johnson & Johnson.

“We recognise the opioid crisis is a tremendously complex public health issue and we have deep sympathy for everyone affected. We are working with partners to find ways to help those in need.”

The court judgement handed down on Monday found that prescription opioid sales increased fourfold between 1994 and 2006.

In 2015, over 326 million opioid pills were dispensed to Oklahoma residents.

As part of its pain management franchise, from the 1990s through to at least 2016, Johnson & Johnson wholly owned two subsidiaries that together supplied other opioid manufacturers with opioid active pharmaceutical ingredients including fentanyl, tramadol, codeine and oxycodone.

The company embarked on a major marketing campaign to disseminate the messages that pain was being undertreated and “there was a low risk of abuse and a low danger” of prescribing opioids to treat chronic, non-malignant pain, the state argued.

A slew of lawsuits have hit pharmaceutical companies and pharmacy groups across the US relating to the opioid crisis.

Earlier this year Purdue Pharma, the maker of the opioid OxyContin, agreed to pay $270 million to fund addiction research and treatment in Oklahoma and pay legal fees.

In July last year Kentuck announced it was suing Walgreens, the country’s second-largest pharmacy chain, for allegedly failing to monitor its shipping and dispensing of large amounts of opioids.

According to the New York Times there are more than 2,000 opioid lawsuits pending across the country.

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