An Oklahoma judge ruled on Monday that pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson is responsible in part for the opioid crisis that ravaged the state due to deceptive marketing practices and must pay $572 million.

Judge Thad Balkman wrote in his ruling that Johnson & Johnson “engaged in false and misleading marketing of both their drugs and opioids generally, and the law makes clear that such conduct is more than enough to serve as the act or omission necessary to establish the first element of Oklahoma’s public nuisance.”

The state initially asked for $17.2 billion, alleging that the drug company created a public health crisis that killed over 6,000 Oklahomans and arguing that Johnson & Johnson had become a “public nuisance”. The ruling for $572 million will only support the state’s recovery program costs for a year.

“Though several of the state’s witnesses testified that the plan will take at least 20 years to work,” the judge wrote in his ruling, “the state did not present sufficient evidence of the amount of time and costs necessary beyond year one to abate the opioid crisis.”

Oklahoma has also received settlements from Purdue Pharma for $270 million and Teva Pharmaceuticals for $85 million in the wake of the alarming number of opioid-related deaths the state has experienced. Attorney General Mike Hunter told reporters, “It’s going to be an important step forward in dealing with the epidemic. Certainly we would have liked to walk out of here with $17 billion, but realistically we’ve been able to get together almost a billion dollars to help Oklahoma.” This is the first time a state has successfully sued a pharmaceutical company for damages related to the opioid crisis.

The opioid crisis has disproportionately affected women throughout the country. According to a report from the Department of Health and Human Services, opioid related deaths among women increased 471 percent from 1999-2015 versus a 218 percent increase among men.

The Center for Disease Control says that “women are more likely than men to experience chronic pain and use prescription opioid pain medications for longer periods and in higher doses.”  While definitive factors impacting women’s opioid use are not widely known, biological and social influences, past experiences, geography, and demographic characteristics are all said to contribute to the problem.

Johnson & Johnson has been sued before for enabling a public health crisis that predominately harms women. In 2018 the company was forced to pay $4.69 billion to women who developed ovarian cancer after using Johnson & Johnson brand talcum powder.

Attorney Mark Lanier said in a statement that “for over 40 years, Johnson & Johnson has covered up the evidence of asbestos in their products. We hope this verdict will get the attention of the J&J board and that it will lead them to better inform the medical community and the public about the connection between asbestos, talc, and ovarian cancer. The company should pull talc from the market before causing further anguish, harm, and death from a terrible disease. J&J sells the same powders in a marvelously safe corn starch variety. If J&J insists on continuing to sell talc, they should mark it with a serious warning.”

Sources: NPR 8/26/19; CNN 8/27/19; Salon 8/27/19; Department of Health and Human Services 7/29/17

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