Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman on Monday found that Johnson & Johnson JNJ, +1.44% and its subsidiaries had helped to worsen Oklahoma’s opioid crisis, ordering the company in a landmark ruling to pay $572 million — more than twice the amount another drug manufacturer had agreed to pay in a settlement.
The state had previously reached settlements with two other companies — a $270-million deal with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and an $85-million settlement with Israeli-owned Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. TEVA, -9.57% — for launching aggressive and misleading marketing and advertising campaigns. Sabrina Strong, an attorney for Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries, called the judge’s decision flawed. “Litigation is not the answer,” she said.
Opioids played a role in approximately 400,000 overdose deaths in the U.S. from 1999 to 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 2000, 6,000 people in Oklahoma have died from opioid overdoses, the state’s lawyers said. Based on previous estimates for other states, that equates to roughly 250,000 years of life in that state.
Assuming a similar age for those fatalities, that figure is based on a 2018 study by the Ohio Alliance for Innovation in Population Health, which calculated that 13,000 Ohio residents died from opioid overdose between 2010 and 2016, accounting for 519,471 years of lost life expectancy. (Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located, ranked first with 62,000 years of lost life expectancy.)
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Figures differ on the rate of opioid use and misuse in various states, but experts say the causes relate to the rate of prescribed opioids and the public-health infrastructure in place to deal with opioid addiction. West Virginia, Maryland, Maine and Utah had significant increases in death rates involving prescription opioids, according to the CDC.
Among Americans aged 65 and older, the poorest are the most likely to have used prescription opioids, according to a University at Buffalo study released last year. “The poor had about double the rate of opioid use compared to wealthier groups,” said Hanna Grol-Prokopczyk, an assistant professor in the university’s sociology department and the study’s author. “The poor are the ones who have been disproportionately relying on these medications.”
The study was published in the latest issue of the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences and was based on responses from 3,721 participants in the nationally representative Health and Retirement Study’s 2005-2006 Prescription Drug Study. Low-income is defined as the bottom quartile of wealthy. These data were gathered during the “peak period of opioid use” in the U.S.
Older Americans on a low income may not be able to afford alternative care or surgery, or may not be able to afford to travel to clinics for regular care. “Some pain researchers argue that the country is simultaneously experiencing an opioid crisis and a crisis of undertreated pain,” Grol-Prokopczyk said.
The CDC recommends alternatives to opioids where possible, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen, and cognitive and physical therapy.
(Alessandra Malito contributed to this story.)