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Judge orders drugmaker to pay $572 million in opioid lawsuit

Judge Thad Balkman announces his decision in the Opioid Lawsuit In Norman, Okla., Monday. Balkman found Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries helped fuel the state's opioid drug crisis and ordered the consumer products giant to pay $572 million to help abate the problem in the coming years.

(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, Pool)

Compared with the landmark $27.5 billion settlement states made in 1998 with Big Tobacco, Oklahoma’s court victory and $572 million judgment against opioid maker Johnson & Johnson might seem a bit paltry. But it marks a giant step toward holding big pharmaceutical companies to the same standard that cigarette makers ultimately embraced: that they bear responsibility for the addictions and 400,000 overdose deaths their products caused.

The monetary amount U.S. District Judge Thad Balkman awarded Monday is well within the realm of affordability for Johnson & Johnson, and it’s probably within the company’s best interests to pay it and be done. Instead, the company says it will appeal and carry on an uphill battle that seems steeper and riskier than what the cigarette companies fought — and ultimately lost.

If not for revelations from inside scientists that the cigarette companies deliberately infused their product with higher levels of addictive nicotine to ensure a steadily growing and loyal customer base, Big Tobacco might well have escaped massive liability judgments for the cancer and heart disease millions of victims suffered. Drug makers have far less ability to hide their actions since doctors and federal watchdogs keep detailed records of production, distribution, sales and marketing patterns. Johnson & Johnson and other drug makers used predatory methods to exploit opioid addictions and profit massively from exploding sales.

Oklahoma’s Republican attorney general, Mike Hunter, successfully argued that Johnson & Johnson was the “kingpin” in a pharmaceuticals network that manufactured and distributed millions of highly addictive painkillers.

“At the root of this crisis was Johnson & Johnson, a company that literally created the poppy that became the source of the opioid crisis.” The company’s “marketing scheme was driven by a desire to make billions for their pain franchise. To do this, they developed and carried out a plan to directly influence and convince doctors to prescribe more and more opioids, despite the fact that defendants knew increasing the supply of opioids would lead to abuse, addiction, misuse, death and crime.”

Predictably, the company denies responsibility, offering thoughts-and-prayers hollow empathy for the thousands of lives destroyed by their opioids while insisting that the company’s hands are clean. If doctors overprescribed, hey, that’s their problem.

Hunter argued that, in fact, the company downplayed the addictive nature of its products, giving doctors a false sense of security that they could prescribe the pills and patches with minimal fear of endangering patient health. Marketing campaigns were tailored to encourage prescribing the drugs for women, teenagers and veterans. Former patients were engaged to give testimonials about opioids’ safety and effectiveness.

Diabolical and malicious is how Hunter described the company’s actions. It is now up to other states, including Missouri, to build on his bold breakthrough and force the kind of multibillion-dollar mass settlement that will make Big Pharma pay for the damage it has inflicted across America.