Johnson & Johnson’s Alleged Role in the Opioid Epidemic

After securing a hefty financial settlement from Purdue Pharma in March, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter is targeting a much bigger pharmaceutical competitor in the upcoming Opioid lawsuit: Johnson & Johnson. This is not a first for the healthcare conglomerate – Johnson & Johnson has been cited in more than 1,600 Opioid lawsuits in state and federal courts across the nation. Rather than highlighting deceptive marketing strategies like the ones used by Purdue, Hunter is working to illustrate the ways in which Johnson & Johnson has essentially functioned as a “behind-the-scenes kingpin” in the Opioid Crisis.

The focus of Johnson & Johnson’s role in Opioid addiction is on two of the company’s subsidiaries that provide the raw materials for many prescription Opioid medications.

Oklahoma state lawyers argued that, until 2016, Johnson & Johnson subsidiaries Tasmanian Alkaloids and Noramco grew, improved, and provided the narcotic ingredients for most of the American prescription Opioid supply, despite knowing the growing devastation caused by the drugs. Tasmanian Alkaloids is one of the world’s largest producers of Thebaine, a narcotic substance derived from Opium poppy plants. Noramco refines Thebaine and other narcotics from poppies into the active ingredient found in Oxycodone, Oxymorphone, and other Opioids for use in drug manufacturing.

Johnson & Johnson owned Tasmanian Alkaloids from 1982 to 2016. State lawyers are arguing that the work Johnson & Johnson did with Tasmanian Alkaloids to improve the concentration and proportion of Thebaine in poppy plants represents a direct link to the powerful painkillers that dominated much of the market during the Opioid Crisis. The state also contends that Johnson & Johnson targeted children in marketing its Opioids – an accusation that the company strongly denies.

Despite the seemingly incriminating evidence, Johnson & Johnson’s counsel in the case, John Sparks, says the state cannot show that the company had any connection to Opioid overdose deaths in the state of Oklahoma or other consequences the state’s counsel has claimed.

Judge’s Verdict

Under Oklahoma court procedures, the last remaining allegation will be heard by a judge rather than a jury. The final ruling will come down from Judge Thad H. Balkman on whether Johnson & Johnson should pay the billions of dollars that Oklahoma is seeking in reparation. Under state law, any culpability could put the company at fault for the entire verdict.

The trial is currently scheduled for May 28th.

Oklahoma’s arguments will center on “public nuisance” law and Johnson & Johnson’s negative impact on the health of state residents. Attorney General Hunter is trying to show that, like tobacco in the late 90s, Opioids are more dangerous than companies told patients. Some of the more than 1,500 other jurisdictions around the country that have filed lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies have made the same claim, alleging that the marketing, sales, and distribution of Opioids knowingly hurt people.

Johnson & Johnson denies liability and draws attention to the fact that millions of people use narcotics every year without becoming addicted, and that prescription painkillers and their ingredients are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. However, Oklahoma maintains that the companies took part in intentionally distributing the drugs despite knowing the danger, resulting in widespread overuse, deaths, and huge costs for state healthcare providers and law enforcement. The suit estimates that reversing the damage in Oklahoma will cost more than $8.7 billion.

Legal experts speculate how difficult it will be for the prosecution to definitively prove that Johnson & Johnson’s subsidiaries’ poppy fields made it a major contributor to the Opioid Epidemic; however, we will have to wait until May 28th to find out.