Oklahoma Shouldn't Be Suing Johnson & Johnson Over the Opioid Crisis

Oklahoma Shouldn't Be Suing Johnson & Johnson Over the Opioid Crisis
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Back in March, Oklahoma announced that it would become the first state to expand Medicaid coverage to include opioid addiction treatment. Although vaccinations are now promising to bring an end to the COVID-19 crisis, opioid overdoses have increased during the pandemic. According to new data from the CDC opioid overdose related deaths grew by over 30% across the country in 2020. 

In an effort to address these rising overdose rates, states like Oklahoma are looking for pharmaceutical opioid producers to pay for the damages of the crisis and fund addiction programs. But growing evidence suggests that government policies themselves are also to blame for the growing death toll.

Here in Oklahoma, Johnson & Johnson is fighting the state in a lawsuit worth billions for its alleged role in the opioid crisis. Last year, while the company was developing a vaccine to help put an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was also defending their opioid-manufacturing subsidiaries. 

Yet, studies increasingly show that the ultimate effect of the government interventions, like prescription drug monitoring programs, over the last decade has been a massive increase in drug overdoses. New research published by the American Medical Association concludes that state interventions to reduce prescribing did reduce deaths from prescription opioids — but at the high cost of increasing deaths from illicit drugs like heroin and fentanyl.

This isn’t the first time the state of Oklahoma has dragged Johnson and Johnson in front of the courts. Shortly before the pandemic erupted in late 2019, the state’s attorney general, Mike Hunter, succeeded in suing the pharmaceutical giant for $465 million. But now he has appealed the decision and is asking the Oklahoma Supreme Court to instead grant $9.4 billion.

With the costs surrounding opioid addiction in Oklahoma amounting to $17 billion according to government estimates, Hunter’s desire for a larger payout is reasonable. But the facts of the case aren’t in his favor. Before the first trial, Hunter claimed:

There are more prescription drug overdose deaths each year in Oklahoma than overdose deaths from alcohol and illegal drugs combined. Oklahoma leads the nation in non-medical use of opioid painkillers. And, in 2016, Oklahoma ranked number one in the nation in milligrams of opioids distributed … per adult.

But these claims don’t match government data. In 2016, deaths from illegal stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine alone surpassed deaths from opioid painkiller prescriptions in Oklahoma. Alcohol-induced deaths, though not all technically “overdoses” by definition, nearly doubled prescription opioid deaths that same year. And Oklahoma was neither the leader in painkiller misuse nor opioid distribution per adult in 2016. It’s certainly clear that too many people were dying from opioids in Oklahoma, but these blatant inaccuracies undermine the authority to assess damages.

Even so, it’s also clear that companies like Johnson & Johnson and Purdue have prioritized profits over wellbeing. The dramatic rise in the use of prescription opioids to treat non-cancer pain was paralleled by increasing prescription opioid abuse shortly after Purdue started marketing OxyContin in the late 1990s. Yet amid unprecedented overdoses in 2020, it’s odd that the rate of opioid addiction is at the lowest rate in at least five years. Many would expect that more deaths from opioids would mean more people are using opioids, which is not the case.

What’s unfortunate is that the inaccuracies of the Oklahoma case plague many other states. Pennsylvania’s Attorney General,  Josh Shapiro, claimed  the state was among the four states that suffered from the highest opioid death rates and use rates in 2017, which was blatantly untrue for both statistics. And in Florida, AG Ashley Moody filed a case against pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens that claimed they made “unconscionable efforts to increase the demand and supply of opioids into Florida ...” which “...caused 5,725 deaths in Florida in 2016.” But neither company ever advertised their opioids—and there were actually 2,798 opioid deaths in Florida in 2016.

It’s convenient to condemn Johnson & Johnson and other profit-motivated companies for the plight of opioid-afflicted communities, but that sort of surface-level examination by policymakers is exactly why we have an overdose crisis in the first place. The recent increase in deaths has less to do with the number of people who were prescribed opioids and much more to do with drug users resorting to dangerous drugs sold by the black market after the government mandated decreases in prescribing. It’s time that governments realize more intervention is followed by more death.

Jacob James Rich is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation.

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