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Johnson & Johnson fined $572m for opioid crisis

August 27, 2019

Oklahoma's attorney general accused Johnson & Johnson of a "multi-billion-dollar brainwashing campaign" to get doctors to overprescribe opioids, downplaying the addiction risks. J&J shares surged after the ruling.

Logo of US pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson
Image: AFP/C. Triballeau

A judge in the US state of Oklahoma found health care giant Johnson & Johnson responsible for fueling the opioid addiction crisis in the state. The company will have to pay $572.1 million (€515 million) to Oklahoma in compensation.

The Oklahoma case against Johnson & Johnson is one of more than 2,000 complaints that have been brought up by municipalities against drugmakers over opioid abuse nationwide.

According to Oklahoma's Attorney General Mike Hunter, 4,653 people were killed in opioid-related deaths from 2007 to 2017.

Hunter said Johnson & Johnson created "the worst man-made public health crisis in the history of our country and the state," accusing the company of carrying out a "multi-billion-dollar brainwashing campaign" to get doctors to overprescribe the drug.

Read more: Opioids in Africa: cheap and accessible

Funds for addiction treatment

Oklahoma's is the first legal case to successfully bring a pharmaceutical giant to trial for the opioid crisis and win. Prosecutors argued that the company marketed opioids aggressively for years, by overstating their effectiveness and downplaying the addiction risk.

Judge Thad Balkman said prosecutors successfully demonstrated that the company contributed to a "public nuisance" through its deceptive advertisement of highly addictive prescription painkillers.

"Those actions compromised the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans," Balkman said.

The prosecution had sought $17 million in compensation, but Balkman said the case was not strong enough for such a figure.

According to the ruling, the compensation money will go to funding an "abatement plan" for care for addicts, families and communities ravaged by the crisis.

Read more: Britain's opioid crisis takes on US dimension

The company said it would appeal the decision, arguing that the law was being inappropriately applied and that its products had a very small role in the opioid epidemic.

"The unprecedented award for the state's 'abatement plan' has sweeping ramifications for many industries and bears no relation to the company's medicines or conduct," said Johnson & Johnson Executive Vice President Michael Ullmann.

The success of the Oklahoma case could provide hope for other states. Attorneys for the plaintiffs in Ohio called the Oklahoma judgment "a milestone amid the mounting evidence against the opioid pharmaceutical industry."

"While public nuisance laws differ in every state, this decision is a critical step forward for the more than 2,000 cities, counties, and towns we represent in the consolidation of federal opioid cases," they said in a statement.

jcg/aw (dpa, Reuters, AFP, AP)

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