Big Pharma’s Opioid Lawsuits: Who Gets the Money

After reaching settlements with other opioid prescription drug manufacturers (Teva and Purdue Pharma, for $85 million and $270 million respectively), the state of Oklahoma has been handed down a favorable decision by an Oklahoma federal judge against pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson. As part of the judge’s decision, Johnson & Johnson has been held culpable for the state’s prescription painkiller crisis and ordered to pay $572.1 million in damages.

The Oklahoma decision comes ahead of another major lawsuit against some of the nation’s other top pharmaceutical companies, a lawsuit trial that is scheduled to be held in a Ohio Federal Court in October. As was the case in the Oklahoma lawsuit, the Ohio trial will likely focus on big pharma’s deceptive marketing practices involving high-level opioid painkillers like OxyContin.

About the Current Opioid Crisis

Based on statistical data, it would be hard to argue against the fact opioid prescription painkillers have played a big role in the rising substance abuse and overdose numbers in the US over the past few decades. In recent years, the numbers have risen to such alarming levels that high-level US government officials, including President Donald Trump, have stated the country is mired in an unprecedented opioid abuse epidemic.

While prescription painkillers are getting most of the notoriety related to said epidemic talk, it’s noteworthy that substances like heroin and fentanyl are also big contributors to the problem. That points to the fact that there’s a multitude of significant underlying reasons for the abuse of opioids in general.

While the nation’s pharmaceutical companies are quick to throw the responsibility for the opioid drug crisis at the feet of drug users and doctors, that hardly absolves them from the responsibility they have to the public. These companies have become in this decade what big tobacco was in prior decades. They contribute very little effort to combating the problems their products are causing, but are more than willing to leave out important information about such substances when marketing their products. It’s always about the almighty dollar with them.

With the Oklahoma decision sure to be appealed, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the courts are more than ready to make sure big pharma takes it fair share of the responsibility for what opioids are doing to US society. Until the nation is able to get control of the current opioid abuse crisis, it’l looks like big pharma is going to be doling out big settlements throughout the country, perhaps rightfully so.

Who Gets the Settlement Dollars

By the time all the current lawsuits on file are cleared off the books, it’s likely big pharma companies like Johnson & Johnson are going to find themselves on the short-end of a lot of court decisions and settlements. Keeping in mind that the tobacco industry collectively paid a settlement to states in the amount of $246 billion in 1998, it’s possible the prescription drug community could be responsible for a similar amount.

With this kind of money on the line, there’s sure to be a lot of interest in where the money is going to go. Remember, these lawsuits are not being filed by individuals but instead by the Attorney Generals of each respective state.

When the tobacco industry made its settlement, the funds were expected to go largely to cancer research and the search for cures. There’s was also an assumption that some of the money would go towards programs to educate people about the dangers of cigarette smoking. To date, the amount of money allocated for of any those purposes has been disappointing.

There’s a similar fear related to how settlement funds from the drug industry are going to be used. While there are plenty of organizations lining up to make sure opioid settlement funds don’t meet a similar fate, it’s really going to be the responsibility of the respective state treasurers to make sure said funds are handled properly. What are the current expectations?

According to Cheryl Healton, dean of the College of Global Public Health at New York University, “I would think it would have to be upwards of a $100 billion national settlement to address the opioid epidemic on a national scale, and were that to happen, it would be very sad if the road-map for the use of the funds were potholes and pet projects. And I think there’s a chance something like that could happen.”

To address the immediate opioid abuse crisis, some funds need to be made available for the opening of drug addiction centers throughout the country. The client load currently being carried by existing addiction treatment centers has left very little available room for a growing population of addicts who need help. While most addiction treatment centers are being run by private companies and non-profit organizations, an increase in state-run facilities would certainly benefit the addiction treatment community.

It’s noteworthy that the Oklahoma prosecution team working on the $270 settlement with Purdue agreed to set aside funds for a new opioid research and treatment center at Oklahoma State University. At the same time, public health organizations are wanting a good portion of settlement monies to be directed to the aforementioned treatment centers, plus a campaign to educate the nation’s population about the dangers of prescription medication abuse as well as the abuse of substances like fentanyl and heroin.

Answers should be forthcoming in the next few years. For now, an effort has to be made to stem the tide of opioid abuse and overdose deaths. Clearly, big pharma is deserving of some of the blame and needs to step forward to do more about drug abuse education, prevention and treatment.