The Irish Times view on the US opioid crisis: where the blame lies

An Oklahoma court ruling against Johnson & Johnson will encourage other states to pursue drug companies over the painkiller epidemic

The ruling by an Oklahoma judge that Johnson & Johnson intentionally played down the dangers and oversold the benefits of opioids is an important milestone in the campaign to make drug companies accountable for their role in creating the prescription painkiller epidemic in the United States. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

The ruling by an Oklahoma judge that Johnson & Johnson intentionally played down the dangers and oversold the benefits of opioids is an important milestone in the campaign to make drug companies accountable for their role in creating the prescription painkiller epidemic in the United States. Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

 

The ruling by an Oklahoma judge that Johnson & Johnson intentionally played down the dangers and oversold the benefits of opioids is an important milestone in the campaign to make drug companies accountable for their role in creating the prescription painkiller epidemic in the United States. Concluding that Johnson & Johnson had conducted “false, misleading and dangerous marketing campaigns” that had caused increasing rates of addication and overdose deaths, the judge ordered the company to pay the state $572 million (€515 million). That sum was far less than the $17 billion the state had argued it needed to deal with the impact of the drug crisis on Oklahoma, and Johnson & Johnson’s shares were up yesterday as a result (the company intends to appeal the verdict).

But the significance of the ruling goes far beyond the scale of the award. This was the first time that a drug manufacturer went on trial for the death and destruction caused by the epidemic, which has resulted in 6,000 deaths by overdose in Oklahoma alone and was estimated in 2017 to have cost the US $500 billion (€450 billion). It was therefore seen as a bellwether for other legal cases across the country. Of particular note is that Judge Thad Balkman accepted the state’s use of public-nuisance laws to punish predatory drug marketing, in effect endorsing the argument, made by communities across the US, that the epidemic significantly affected public health. That will give a boost to more than 45 other states and 2,000 local governments who plan to bring similar arguments in cases of their own.

Responsibility for the opioid crisis lies with a range of players, from doctors who over-prescribed to the Drug Enforcement Administration, which failed to heed the signs of large-scale inappropriate prescribing. But it was the drug companies themselves who, starting in the early 2000s, flooded the market with addictive painkillers then aggressively marketed them and played down the risks. They made huge profits on drugs that wrought havoc on vulnerable communities. Now, not before time, a reckoning looks likely.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.