Why are Multiple States Suing Drug Companies for $26.4 Billion?

American Court
Photo by Alex Staroseltsev/Shutterstock.com

Anyone working in healthcare or addiction recovery knows that we’re in the throes of a catastrophic opioid epidemic. This fact is also known by any family that has lost a loved one either to addiction, overdose or some other kind of drug-related death.

Despite heroic efforts by tens of thousands of individuals and the family members of those who are addicted, the epidemic rages on. For launching this disaster, the media has thoroughly reported the involvement of large pharmaceutical companies. The role of Purdue Pharma in particular has been thoroughly revealed in news headlines.

But they could never have created this disaster alone. They had help. And now some of the other companies involved in creating this disaster are being sued by U.S. states seeking the funding to restore health to those who fell prey to the addictiveness of prescription painkillers.

A Sample of Lawsuits Involving Companies Involved in Pharmaceutical Sales

It would not be practical to list all the companies that have been sued and all the U.S. states, counties, cities, tribes, unions and agencies that filed the suits. But it would be educational to take a look at a sampling.

Johnson & Johnson was sued by many states wishing to be compensated for the burden that addiction imposed on states. In Oklahoma, the state won a judgment of $572 million for the role Johnson & Johnson played in created addictions through unscrupulous marketing practices.

States like California filed lawsuits against Purdue, Teva Pharmaceuticals of Israel, Johnson & Johnson (as Janssen Pharmaceuticals), Endo Health Solutions and Watson Pharmaceuticals.

The Drug Enforcement Administration itself filed a civil suit against Walgreens for their negligence in failing to pay attention to unusual shipping patterns. For example, they shipped 13.7 million doses of Oxycodone to just six pharmacies in Florida.

The State of Kentucky also sued Purdue Pharma. Counties located in the Appalachian Mountains, especially in Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee, suffered greatly from opioid addiction.

In all, there were more than 3,000 lawsuits filed against pharmaceutical manufacturers and marketers plus other companies that made millions distributing the drugs while never questioning the volume of pills being shipped.

Why Are These Lawsuits Being Filed?

Because of the devastation caused by millions of people becoming addicted to opioid drugs. It is possible to correlate the launching of this opioid epidemic with the growing number prescriptions that were written by doctors and then sold by pharmacies.

A few years back, the publication Mother Jones presented this chart comparing opioid sales to the number of deaths resulting from painkillers. As more doctors were convinced by seminars and speakers sponsored by pharmaceutical companies that chronic pain needed to be treated by prescribing painkillers, more pills arrived in the hands of patients.

Prescription Opioid sales and deaths
Image courtesy of Mother Jones. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2016/09/opioid-charts-explainer/

More of these patients then became addicted to their painkillers because opioids, frankly, are addictive.

Some of these patients would then die of overdoses, as shown in the chart above.

Many, many of these people switched to heroin because it was cheaper and it didn’t require a doctor’s visit. This transition is excellently described by Shannon McKinnon, a television producer in Toronto, in this article. Her article also perfectly describes the way those who are addicted to opioids—prescription or illicit—lose everything to their addictions.

When an addicted person loses their job, insurance, marriage, home, children and ability to cope, the burden generally falls on the community. Cities, counties, states, the federal government and other organizations like hospitals end up paying all the costs created by that person’s addiction.

There’s costs like these:

  • Healthcare and rehab for the addicted person
  • The cost of first responders who try to save people from overdoses
  • Foster care for the children of those who are addicted
  • Law enforcement costs to get the drugs off the streets
  • Jail for those possessing or selling drugs
  • And a hundred other expenses

States, counties and other entities who have to foot the bill can be severely strained by these expenses. Instead of investing in education or a better quality of life for all their citizens, they have to mop up the wreckage of addiction.

So What is the $26.4 Billion Lawsuit About?

It’s another effort to require the pharmaceutical companies who raked in billions of dollars in profits from selling addictive drugs to return these profits to the states that have had to pay for the burden of addiction.

According to Forbes Magazine, twelve states have banded together to obtain compensation from Johnson & Johnson and three pharmaceutical distributors:

  • McKesson Corp
  • AmerisourceBergen
  • Cardinal Health

Why these distributors? Pharmaceutical distributors obtain supplies of painkillers and many other drugs from manufacturers and ship them to the pharmacies that hand the pills out to patients. These lawsuits contend that these distributors should have noticed patterns of purchasing by pharmacies that could only be explained by gross overprescribing by doctors in their areas and heavy consumption by addicted patients.

The lawsuits have been filed by the attorneys general of Florida, Delaware and North Carolina and several other states.

Will $26.4 Billion Cover the Cost of the Opioid Epidemic?

Money in a Dark place
                                Photo by Vasilii Koval/Shutterstock.com

Not even close. A report from CNN estimated the entire cost of mopping up this epidemic at $2.15 TRILLION.

Why so much? Because of the multitude of services needed to restore all the lives damaged by drugs, protect the children and prevent future addictions.

To get a little more perspective on the costs, the State of Oklahoma went to trial in 2019 to obtain compensation from Johnson & Johnson for the costs of opioid addiction in the state. They asked for $17.5 billion to foot the bill for all the services that would be needed over a thirty-year period.

This plan includes provisions like these:

  1. Adult addiction treatment services
  2. Halfway houses
  3. Addiction mental helpline
  4. Drug disposal systems
  5. Technical assistance to provide training
  6. Annual conference to discuss best practices
  7. Expansion of drug courts
  8. School education programs
  9. Training for counselors and teachers
  10. Training for doctors and nurses
  11. Naloxone (opioid antidote) distribution program
  12. Transportation service for drug treatment visits
  13. Screening and treatment for pregnant women

What About the Loved Ones We’ve Lost?

So far, we’ve talked about the dollar amounts being requested to address the problem of opioid addiction. What about the cost in lives?

No review of this situation would be fair or just if we didn’t take several moments to pause and consider those who lost their lives and the millions of others who loved them.

Since 1999, more than 750,000 people have died from drug overdoses—the equivalent of wiping out the City of Seattle over a twenty-year period. While the specifics on the drugs causing these deaths have shifted over the years, in recent times, more than 80% of drug overdose deaths involved one or more opioid drug. Perhaps it is 100% appropriate that those who profited from the sales of these drugs should foot the bill to clean up the wrecked lives that were the result.


Reviewed and Edited by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP


Karen Hadley

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.