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Last week, a judge in Oklahoma ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for its role in the opioid epidemic. The judge said the company had run a “false and dangerous” marketing campaign that perpetuated the crisis in the state. The landmark ruling is the first time a drug manufacturer has been held legally responsible for contributing to the opioid epidemic.
That decision may soon be followed by a massive settlement involving OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma. The company has reportedly offered $10 billion to $12 billion to settle more than 2,000 lawsuits alleging it helped start and perpetuate the crisis.
Prescription opioids have caused more than 200,000 deaths in the past two decades. The cause is often linked to overprescription of pain medication. America's biggest drug companies distributed 76 billion opioid pills between 2006 and 2012.
Why there’s debate:
The ruling in Oklahoma and the potential Purdue Pharma settlement are seen by many as a form of justice against companies that flooded communities with potentially deadly drugs in a blind pursuit of profit. “A reckoning is finally taking shape,” one of the witnesses in the Oklahoma case said. The hope is that fear of financial retribution will push drug manufacturers to be more responsible in their practices.
Some have argued, however, that the payments aren’t large enough to offset the massive profits drug companies made from selling opioids. Others say the deals allow executives to escape personal repercussions for what the companies did on their behalf. There is also some skepticism over whether the legal reasoning used in the Oklahoma case will hold up under appeal or be applicable in other jurisdictions.
Others have defended the manufacturers, saying the companies are being unfairly blamed for the epidemic when the behavior of doctors, legislators, insurance companies and patients are also major drivers of the crisis. “You can’t sue your way out of the opioid crisis,” an attorney for Johnson & Johnson said.
The Oklahoma decision may face an appeal in the near future. But if the ruling is allowed to stand, it could be used as a guide for future cases against a number of other opioid manufacturers in the United States. A consolidated case combining many of the 2,000 lawsuits against Purdue Pharma is scheduled to start in late October if a settlement agreement isn't reached.
Regardless of how the legal aspects play out, there is reason for cautious optimism that efforts to fight opioid epidemic may be working. After increasing steadily for decades, U.S. drug overdose deaths declined in 2018.
The cases could be the start of drug companies being held accountable for their actions.
“The pharmaceutical industry faces a possible reckoning like that which Big Tobacco once faced — and for a public-health catastrophe as devastating, in its own way, as the one smoking wrought.” — Editorial, Washington Post
The penalties aren’t big enough to change the behavior of drug companies.
“The job of the courts and regulatory apparatus is to help prevent future disaster. This will not happen when penalties are meted out such that loss of life is treated as a cost of doing business.” — James Hamblin, The Atlantic
Payments by drug companies are only part of a solution to the epidemic.
“Holding the pharmaceutical companies that profited off of addiction and pain to account is important and has inherent value. However, efforts to respond to the crisis should continue in parallel to legal action. Any funds that might come from litigation would be a bonus — not the solution itself.” — Editorial, Philadelphia Inquirer
The cases provide the first positive sign in the campaign to halt the crisis.
“For those fighting on the front lines of the opioid epidemic, they represent the first inklings of hope in a very long time.” — Mac Molinaro, New York Daily News
Only criminal punishment for executives will be strong enough to create change.
“Cash settlements are a start, but they will never be enough. The executives who masterminded the drug epidemic should face consequences for their greed.” — Ryan Hampton, Los Angeles Magazine
The money from the cases must be spent on undoing the harm of the opioid crisis.
“Perhaps a federal judge could craft a ruling in which defendant drug companies are not simply ordered to write a check. Instead, maybe these companies should be on the hook to build and staff enough treatment centers nationwide to help those people who need it.” — Editorial, Toledo Blade
Drug companies are being unfairly blamed.
“To penalize the companies that manufacture these blessings of modern medicine, all because too many people misuse them, is to act both morally and legally backwards.” — Quin Hillyer, Washington Examiner
The legal reasoning in the Oklahoma case is shaky.
“It would be a mistake to view the Oklahoma case as the 'litmus test' for opioid cases. Whether it is lead paint or guns or climate change, public nuisance claims tend to make for better trial than appellate cases. If relief is to be secured for victims, it is more likely to be found in a settlement or less novel theories of recovery.” — Jonathan Turley, USA Today
Drug manufacturers acted in accordance with the law.
“What it will do is punish a private company for developing and marketing a legal product. And not just any legal product: a medicine approved and regulated by the Food and Drug Administration that has provided needed relief to millions of patients.” — Jennifer C. Braceras, Boston Globe
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images