States take on Big Pharma

Ambulance with lights on (depositphotos)

By Madeleine Davison

Nearly 250,000 people died because of opioid overdoses between 2010 and 2017. IRW and the Washington Post reported in May that the Trump administration has failed to allocate sufficient funds to fight the epidemic and has left crucial drug enforcement posts unfilled, despite declaring opioid addiction a public health emergency in 2017.

While the federal government struggles to respond to this increasingly urgent public health crisis, thousands of state and local governments are suing opioid manufacturers.

This summer, Oklahoma is taking pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson to court over its alleged role in the opioid crisis. Nearly all U.S. states have sued the drug companies they say both encouraged and profited from the addiction epidemic over the past three years. Oklahoma’s lawsuit is the first to go to trial, and experts say the outcome will set the tone for other states’ cases against opioid manufacturers.

Johnson & Johnson is the only defendant that remains after the other two original defendants in Oklahoma’s suit — Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals — settled out of court for $270 million and $85 million, respectively. 

In 2017, a joint investigation by IRW, “60 Minutes” and the Washington Post found that drug manufacturers and distributors worked with Congress to strip the Drug Enforcement Administration of its power to fight addiction.

Oklahoma alleges that Johnson & Johnson created a “public nuisance” by overproducing opioid medications and aggressively marketing them to physicians. The company says that its products helped millions of people with chronic pain and that it produced “medically necessary” drugs.

Meanwhile, other states have lined up to sue Big Pharma over opioids. California announced a lawsuit June 3 targeting Purdue for downplaying the addictive effects of OxyContin, its signature opioid painkiller. New York filed suit March 28 against the Sackler family, owners of Purdue, and several opioid distributors for using fraud to hide money from litigation and exceed opioid prescription limits.

And June 14, attorneys for several cities and counties proposed a class action lawsuit to allow 24,000 local governments to collectively sue drug companies for damages incurred by opioid addiction. That move was delayed June 26 to allow attorneys more time to negotiate details.   Some critics argued the structure of the proposal would unfairly allow cities to veto settlements reached by individual states.

The Oklahoma lawsuit is expected to last through the summer. Follow the trial live or watch video on the Oklahoman’s YouTube channel.