Johnson & Johnson (J&J) will permanently quit making opioid drugs in the United States, as part of a $230 million settlement reached with New York State. The settlement, announced Saturday by the state Attorney General’s office, came just days before an opioid trial was expected to begin, the New York Times reported.
Despite the settlement, the opioid trial is expected to begin as scheduled because J&J was only one of several defendants in a sprawling case involving several companies representing the entire supply chain of prescription pain pills, from manufacturers to distributors to pharmacies.
Players in the opioid industry fave over 3,000 suits. Plaintiffs, mostly representing states, municipalities, counties, or tribal nations, allege that manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies have contributed to an epidemic of abuse that has prematurely ended the lives of more than 800,000 Americans over the last two decades.
The forthcoming New York State trial against the whole supply chain of the opioid industry will be the first of its kind to go before a jury, reports the New York Times. In May, a bench trial (a judge decides the fact rather than a jury), pitting the municipality regarded as ground zero in the opioid epidemic, Huntington, West Virginia, versus three of the largest opioid manufacturers, began.
As part of the settlement with New York, J&J did not admit liability or wrongdoing. “The company’s actions relating to the marketing and promotion of important prescription pain medications were appropriate and responsible,” a statement by the company read, per the New York Times.
J&J exited the opioid market in 2020, the same year it announced it was discontinuing sales in North America of its iconic talcum baby powder. The company faces over 25,000 talc lawsuits, in which plaintiffs allege that they developed ovarian cancer from the baby powder, and that J&J knew for decades that its talcum powder could become contaminated with asbestos, a cancer-causing mineral that appears in close proximity to talc in mining operations. Talc baby powder plaintiffs claim that J&J withheld data about its talc-mining operations and manipulated research to downplay the risk of cancer.
Now that J&J has reached a settlement agreement with New York, its subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceutical, maker of a fentanyl patch, will be removed from the upcoming trial. Moreover, J&J will pay the settlement money over the course of nine years, and will pay an additional over $30 million in legal fees to reimburse New York.
However, not one dollar of the settlement will reimburse families affected by the opioid crisis. Rather, the money will fund addiction programs and other addiction-abatement programs, on a county-by-county basis.
The sprawling opioid case about to begin in New York was filed by the attorney general and by Nassau and Suffolk Counties on Long Island, and is being argued jointly. It includes claims that the companies, like Janssen, misled the public by initially denying the drugs were highly addictive, and aggressively marketed them as such, ignoring warnings of abuse as they chased profits.
According to the New York Times, J&J previously had supplied up to 60% of opioid drug ingredients. The company contracted with poppy growers in the Australian state of Tasmania and supplied the raw plant ingredients to companies that made Oxycodone and other synthetic opiates.
Only a few opioid suits have reached trial thus far, and one of the reasons J&J may have settled with New York stems from the fact that it lost an opioid trial two years ago, in which a judge ordered the company to pay $465 million to the state of Oklahoma for its role in contributing to opioid addiction.
Johnson & Johnson has struggled under waves of bad publicity. It suffered a defeat in an opioid trial in 2019 when an Oklahoma judge ordered it to pay the state $465 million for its role in the public nuisance created by opioid addiction. In addition to facing pricey litigation over talc powder and opioids as well as faulty hip implants, the company has endured negative publicity surrounding the rollout of its coronavirus vaccine, which was temporarily suspended in the USA over concerns of rare blood clots. Moreover, shoddy manufacturing practices and cross-contamination with another coronavirus vaccine at a Baltimore facility, led to the disposal of 60 million J&J coronavirus vaccines.