Did Johnson & Johnson jump or was it pushed? Drug firm quits opioids before ‘pillbilly’ trials

US drugmaker is first to formally agree to leave multibillion-dollar business selling powerful narcotics

Johnson & Johnson said it had already jumped. New York’s attorney general suggested the pharmaceutical giant was pushed. Either way, the American drugmaker is the first to formally agree to get out of the multibillion-dollar business of selling the powerful narcotic painkillers that drove the US opioid epidemic.

J&J made the deal, along with agreeing to pay a $230 million, or €190m, settlement, to avoid the first jury trial of major pharmaceutical companies over the opioid crisis, which is scheduled to open in New York state on Tuesday.

The trial comes as the drug industry faces a reckoning for what its accusers describe as cynicism and greed in creating an epidemic of addiction to prescription painkillers and illicit opioids, such as heroin, that has killed more than 600,000 people since 1999 and caused misery for millions more.

A trial of drug distributors accused of driving the highest overdose rate in the US revealed that executives circulated rhymes and emails mocking 'pillbillies' who became addicted to painkillers

Ongoing trials in West Virginia and California have pressured J&J, other opioid makers, pharmaceutical chains and some of the largest US drug distributors into settlement talks amid shocking revelations about their business practices.


A trial of drug distributors accused of illegally flooding West Virginia with opioids and driving the highest overdose rate in the country revealed that executives circulated rhymes and emails mocking “pillbillies” who became addicted to painkillers.

That trial is one of a series of bellwether cases to establish whether opioid makers, distributors and pharmacy chains are liable to pay out billions to thousands of US counties, cities and Native American tribes harmed by opioids. Another trial, involving two Ohio counties, was settled minutes before it was to begin, with four big drug companies agreeing to pay $260 million.

J&J did not admit liability in settling the New York suit brought by the state and two Long Island counties. It said its “actions relating to the marketing and promotion of important prescription pain medications were appropriate and responsible”.

But the risks of going to a full trial were clear after a judge in Oklahoma found against the company two years ago after weeks of testimony, which revealed a pattern of disdain among employees towards the risk of addiction from powerful painkillers and contempt for those who became hooked.

In one company memo, a rep said she dismissed a doctor’s fears patients might become addicted by telling him those who didn’t die probably wouldn’t get hooked.

Consultants hired by Johnson & Johnson recommended its sales force focus on increasing sales by looking to 'target high abuse-risk patients (eg males under 40)'

Consultants hired by J&J recommended its sales force focus on increasing sales by looking to “target high abuse-risk patients (eg males under 40)”.

The judge ordered J&J to pay $465 million in restitution after finding that it deceptively and aggressively pushed false claims that its powerful opioid painkillers were safer and more effective than they were. He also found that the company made “substantial payments of money” to front organisations to resist curbs on prescribing.

The New York case threatened further embarrassing revelations for a company that has sought to restore its reputation after other scandals, including over contaminated baby powder, with its anti-Covid vaccine.

New York's attorney general, Letitia James, heralded the settlement as not only providing funds to repair some of the damage caused by the epidemic but also cutting off a path to addiction.

“Johnson & Johnson helped fuel this fire, but today they’re committing to leaving the opioid business – not only in New York, but across the entire country,” she says.

J&J said it had already decided in 2020 to “discontinue all of its prescription pain medications in the United States”.

If the decision was indeed made last year, then it came not long after Oklahoma judgment.

The New York trial will go ahead against other drug manufacturers and distributors. The state also sued Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, the drug widely blamed for kickstarting the opioid epidemic, but that has moved to a separate bankruptcy court.

Other drug firms will be closely watching what the jury decides, along with the verdicts in West Virginia and California, to decide whether it is worth pressing on in court or finally reaching a comprehensive agreement to settle more than 3,000 cases.

One indicator of which way they think the wind is blowing is that some drugmakers and distributors have told shareholders they have set aside billions to settle cases. – Guardian

Chris McGreal is the author of American Overdose: The Opioid Tragedy in Three Acts, published by Guardian Faber