A judge is finally holding a major pharmaceutical company accountable for its role in the deadly opioid epidemic. On Aug. 26, an Oklahoma judge ruled that Johnson & Johnson had intentionally misled patients and doctors about the addictive properties of opioids, ordering it to pay $572 million. The landmark ruling has far-reaching implications for the responsibility of big pharmaceutical companies that manufacture drugs.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 130 people in the United States die every day from overdosing on opioids. Several governmental bodies call it a “crisis.” Aggressive ad campaigns from pharmaceutical companies fuel the sale of opioids, while simultaneously downplaying the negative effects.
“The opioid crisis has ravaged the state of Oklahoma,” Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman said, just before announcing the verdict. “It must be abated immediately.” The ruling orders Johnson & Johnson to pay one of the largest monetary awards in U.S. history, according to CBS News.
While the amount is large, the prosecutorial team was expecting double that amount. “The expectation was this was going to be a $1.5 billion to $2 billion fine,” said Jared Holz, who serves as a healthcare strategist. “Five hundred and seventy-two million dollars is a much lower number than had been feared.” The $572 million dollar number represents less than one percent of the company’s annual sales. For comparison, Johnson & Johnson’s sales were $81.6 billion in 2018, according to its website.
Similar lawsuits were settled for smaller amounts, because the pharmaceutical companies settled out of court. Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, for instance, settled out of court for a combined total of $355 million, without admitting wrongdoing.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said that opioid overdoses in Oklahoma killed 4,653 people from 2007 to 2017—far more than the total deaths resulting from the 9-11 attacks. Hunter also called the company a “kingpin” in the painkiller drug market. Johnson & Johnson says it will appeal and seek to put payment of the award on hold during the appeal process.