Now That the Oklahoma Lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson Is Over—What Happens Now?

Money and justice

In August 2019, Cleveland County Judge Thad Balkman handed down his verdict in the State of Oklahoma’s lawsuit against drugmaker defendants Johnson & Johnson and their subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceuticals. The judge found that the companies were liable for causing opioid addictions in the state and ordered them to pay $572 million to help the state address the life-threatening problems that resulted from their actions.

The money is supposed to be used to fund the State’s opioid-abatement plan. Oklahoma estimated their first-year costs to abate the opioid epidemic in the state at $870 million. Attorneys estimated that the state’s full cost to deal with opioid addiction would run between $13 billion and $17 billion over 20 to 30 years.

There’s a very important question that one could ask right at this point: From this settlement and others like it, how many people will actually recover from their addiction to opioids? Because truly, shouldn’t that be the goal?

Looking at an Earlier Settlement for Part of the Answer

The tobacco lawsuits of the early 1990s had some similarities to these opioid lawsuits. The states realized that tobacco use accounted for between 6 and 8 percent of the country’s entire healthcare costs, and a quarter of their Medicaid costs. The four largest tobacco companies were sued to recoup these costs. Billions of dollars were paid out to U.S. states, territories, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

What happened then? As documented in the New York Times, that money did not necessarily go toward preventing tobacco use, as was vowed when the settlement was received, nor was it used to compensate the states for their costs resulting from tobacco use.

Here are some examples of where this money did go:

  • Alaska spent $3.5 million on shipping docks.
  • Niagara County in New York spent $700,000 on a public golf course and $24 million for county buildings, including a new jail.
  • Perhaps most shocking, North Carolina spent $42 million on helping tobacco farmers modernize and market their products.

This example makes it highly desirable for Oklahoma to closely monitor where their funds go to make sure they actually end up benefiting the state’s population. Because no matter how much the state, counties, and cities struggled with the effects of the opioid crisis, it’s the state’s population, its residents and families, that ultimately paid the highest price.

Looking at an Earlier Oklahoma Drug Company Settlement for More of the Answer

There are currently more than 1,500 lawsuits from states, counties, cities, fire and police departments, tribes and unions consolidated into one huge action in Ohio. The lawsuits name the following defendants:

  • Purdue Pharma
  • Johnson & Johnson
  • Teva Phamaceutical Industries Ltd
  • Collegium Pharmaceuticals
  • Depomed
  • Endo Pharmceuticals
  • Mallinckrodt Brand Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
  • Sandoz International GMBH
  • Zogenix, Inc.
  • Quest Pharmaceuticals, Inc
  • Distributors Cardinal Health, McKesson Specialty Care Distribution Corporation,
  • Retailers Smith’s, Wal-Mart, Kroger, Costco, Rite Aid, CVS, and Walgreens.
Money symbols made of pills.

Supposing these manufacturers, distributors and retailers offer adequate money to make these lawsuits go away. What might the states do with all that cash?

Let’s look at what is happening with some early settlement money in Oklahoma. Purdue Pharma agreed to pay the state $270 million. Of this settlement, $102.5 million will fund a National Center for Addiction Studies and Treatment to be housed at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa. Another $75 million will be paid by the Sackler family, the owners of privately-held Purdue.

It’s of interest that National Public Radio reported that the Sacklers sold more than $4 billion worth in opioids between 2008 and 2016 alone. Because OxyContin sales began to soar in the mid- to late-1990s, their sales were actually vastly higher when you add on that additional decade’s sales.

Another $12.5 million goes to counties and municipalities for their costs. There’s also $60 million included for legal fees.

And there’s still more. There’s $20 million earmarked for medicines to be given to patients being treated in that addiction-studies center. That usually means for the Suboxone, buprenorphine, naloxone, naltrexone and (less often these days) methadone that are used in many treatment centers. These drugs have various purposes when given to those in addiction treatment but none of them teach an addicted person how to thrive while living a life free from any reliance on drugs.

Suboxone and buprenorphine are both addictive opioids that do not free a person from the chains of addiction. They can help bridge a person over to treatment or help them control their drug use until they can find an opening in a drug rehab center. But if you consider that treating something should mean addressing the causes and eliminating the disease or the health problem, would treatment with Suboxone and buprenorphine actually constitute treatment?

Fortunately, some treatment professionals consider that these drugs are most valuable when used as a temporary measure with the individual being weaned off them as they get their lives in better order. In fact, some research even supports quickly tapering a person off these medications after they have been in rehab as briefly as seven days.

But the emphasis of federal agencies like the National Institute on Drug Abuse is to integrate the use of these drugs much more completely into our healthcare system, enabling far more people to receive these drugs. [See section “Integrating Drug Treatment into Healthcare Settings”.]

“If I could be granted one wish, it would be that those in charge of these disbursements would realize that recovery from addiction can be accomplished without drugs.”

Let’s go back to that question we were asking at the beginning and word it a little differently this time: To what degree will these settlements simply turn into massive cash pools to use to distribute Suboxone and buprenorphine to those who are addicted?

If I could be granted one wish, it would be that those in charge of these disbursements would realize that recovery from addiction can be accomplished without drugs. It happens every day in Narconon Centers around the world. Those millions and millions of dollars could be used to help the addicted get back on their feet without substitute medications. Unfortunately, we are going to have to let time show us the results of these million-dollar settlements like Purdue’s $270 settlement and Teva Pharmaceutical’s similar $85 million settlement with Oklahoma.

With honest concern for their citizens, the administrators of these funds could actually ensure that those who need recovery actually get the results they really want—freedom from the chains of drug use and addiction.

AUTHOR

Karen

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.