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Judge Rules That Johnson & Johnson 'Caused the Opioid Epidemic' in Oklahoma, Orders Them to Pay State Damages

Jim Craigmyle/Getty Images; Win McNamee/Getty Images

Pharmaceutical manufacturing and sales is a highly profitable business in the United States where drug prices and marketing and sales techniques are not well regulated. While drug manufacturers have to include side effects in TV ads, pharmaceutical companies' marketing to doctors and healthcare facilities remains largely unknown by patients.

Are you getting the best drug for your treatment or the drug that offers your doctor the biggest incentive?


Pharmaceutical companies offer trips, gifts and monetary incentives to doctors and institutions to encourage them to prescribe their products. But now a county district court judge in Oklahoma is holding a pharmaceutical giant accountable for such standard business practices.

Judge Thad Balkman of Cleveland County District Court ruled Monday that Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical division bears financial liability for the opioid crisis in that state. The judge ordered the company to pay $572 million to Oklahoma to mitigate the costs associated with treatment and detention of people addicted to opiates.

According to Judge Balkman:

"The defendant caused an opioid crisis that is evidenced by increased rates of addiction, overdose deaths and neonatal abstinence syndrome, in Oklahoma."

The case was brought against the company best known for baby shampoo and powder by the state of Oklahoma.

The judge added in his ruling:

"[Johnson & Johnson's] misleading marketing and promotion [of opioids] compromised the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans."

The drug manufacturer is expected to appeal. Advocates for those affected by the opioid crisis hoped for a larger judgment against the multibillion dollar company.

Judge Balkman explained he was bound by existing law regarding the amount:

"Whether additional programs and funding are needed over an extended period of time, those are determinations to be made by our legislators and policy makers."

The Oklahoma legislature could change the law or impose their own fines.

Johnson & Johnson is not the sole manufacturer of opioids, but 60% of opiates affecting Oklahomans were manufactured at least in part by Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said:

"Johnson & Johnson, motivated by greed and avarice, is [responsibile] for the opioid epidemic in our state."

AG Hunter added:

"Johnson & Johnson will finally be held accountable for thousands of deaths and addiction caused by their activities."

Hunter's suit against the company asked for $17 billion.

2,000 lawsuits currently face opioid manufacturers. All of the other pending cases were consolidated into one case to be heard in Ohio federal court beginning in October.

Despite the relatively small amount, the judgment is still significant as the first to address the role of pharmaceutical company marketing in substance abuse.

The case is reminiscent of rulings that reshaped alcohol and tobacco advertising and marketing. The potential impact was noted by many.

Johnson & Johnson is expected to appeal the court ruling. Two other pharmaceutical companies previously settled out of court with the state of Oklahoma.

The bestselling book Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America is available here.

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