The opioid crisis has been shaped by many different actors: doctors, pharmaceutical companies, patients, drug dealers and government agencies. Now that it’s established that prescription opioids are highly addictive and that physicians and drug manufacturers were aware of this, local, state and federal courts are beginning to prosecute the responsible parties. 

In August of 2019, the first large lawsuit against a drug manufacturer was decided. The result is an unprecedented $572 million fine against one of the oldest American drug companies: Johnson & Johnson. 

The Oklahoma Case Against Johnson & Johnson

As part of a national response to the opioid crisis in America, a lawsuit was filed in the state of 

Oklahoma against Johnson & Johnson, a longstanding American drug company based out of New Brunswick, New Jersey.

The trial began in May and after months of testimony and deliberation, an Oklahoma judge found that Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries did, in fact, help fuel the Oklahoma opioid crisis. The prosecution argued that Johnson & Johnson was responsible since they knew the risks for addiction and still launched an aggressive advertising campaign for their opioid drugs, intentionally understating the potential for addiction. 

Johnson & Johnson Defends Against Role in Opioid Crisis

In the trial against Johnson & Johnson, the defense argued that they were not responsible for the opioid crisis in the United States or in Oklahoma, more specifically. Instead, lawyers for the company tried to convince the judge that the law in Oklahoma was being inappropriately applied and that the opioids that Johnson & Johnson played a role in manufacturing did not have a large impact.

The prosecution, on the other hand, revealed that the company aggressively pitched their drugs to doctors in Oklahoma, stating that the drugs had a low risk for abuse and posed little risk to patients. Johnson & Johnson even went as far as to use the phrase “pseudoaddiction” to try to persuade doctors that even if patients seemed to present with signs of addiction, it was not possible. Instead, company representatives said that these patients had a pseudoaddiction, and were actually suffering from the undertreatment of pain and needed more drugs.

Recognizing Opioid Addiction Amidst a Crisis

Now, we clearly know that the signs of addiction to opioids are real ⁠and that the so-called pseudoaddiction symptoms referenced by Johnson & Johnson have no basis when it comes to the opioid crisis. 

As medical professionals, why didn’t doctors recognize the signs and symptoms of opiate and opioid addiction? Some did. Many doctors have been at the forefront of battling the opioid crisis and have been crucial to alerting authorities and the medical community. However, many doctors also played a large role in overprescribing and even selling the drugs as well.

Fortunately, physicians are better trained now to recognize the signs and symptoms of opioid addiction, including:

  • Not being able to stop using the drugs, even if one wants to
  • Visiting multiple doctors to get more prescriptions
  • Needing more of a drug to treat pain
  • Financial, legal or social trouble related to opioid use
  • Asking to borrow money or stealing from loved ones
  • Ignoring or avoiding loved ones
  • Faking pain or hurting one’s self to receive pain medication
  • Having an excess of pill bottles
  • Weakened immune system
  • Overall poor health

Even if a physician does not recognize some of these signs and symptoms, family members can play a big role. Recognizing these symptoms in a loved one can make a huge difference in getting them the treatment they need.

Major Fines for Drug Makers

As the opioid crisis persists in the United States, wreaking havoc in the lives of millions of Americans, lawsuits against drug makers will continue to be filed. The verdict against Johnson & Johnson is being watched very closely by legal professionals, drug companies and people who have lost in the opioid epidemic.

While the $572 million fine may seem like a big penalty for Johnson & Johnson, it’s a drop in the pan compared to what the company may have to pay in fines in future lawsuits in states that have been hit even harder. Right now, there are over 2,000 opioid-related lawsuits in the state of Ohio alone.

While these lawsuits are a way to punish unethical behavior by drug companies, will they help address the opioid crisis?

In a way, yes. Paying substantial fines not only tarnishes a company’s reputation, but it also makes them less likely to engage in unlawful practices. So, it’s possible that legal claims against drug manufacturers will shape their future behavior. However, in terms of creating opioid crisis solutions for the present, they are not enough.