Over the past 12 years in America, a period in which some 400,000 people have died from overdoses of opioid drugs, two significant court cases held pharmaceutical manufacturers responsible for promoting and profiting from the epidemic of opioid addiction.
The good news is that the records of the 2007 ruling against Purdue Pharma, the lead manufacturer of the opioid painkiller OxyContin and the 2019 judgment against Johnson & Johnson, manufacturer of drugs that went into the branded opioids like Percodan, Percocet and OxyContin, confirm and thereby reinforce one another in detail after detail.
Oklahoma judge Thad Balkman in his October verdict against Johnson & Johnson noted the same sales strategy devised by Purdue Pharma was used by Johnson & Johnson: overstate a problem – allegedly under-treated chronic pain, and recklessly promote a solution, opioid drugs, by lying about the opioids’ addictive powers.
And Purdue and Johnson & Johnson used the same tactics: sending sales representatives into doctors’ offices to deliver misleading messages, distributing misleading materials to patients and doctors, even misleading drug customers over the internet.
And beyond retail propaganda, Johnson & Johnson also followed the Purdue Pharma playbook – tossing big financial contributions to pain advocacy groups and organizations of healthcare professionals which advocated for greater use of opioid drugs and regularly abusing academic research to deny the threat of addiction.
In both cases, the courts’ message to Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson and the pharmaceutic industry is the same: we’re on to your act. We know what you do, how you do it and we know the devastating damage you have done to America. And now you’re going to pay for it.
But, the bad news is also that so many of the details and judgments in the two cases are the same. Between the Purdue Pharma case in 2007 and the Johnson & Johnson case in 2019, when 400,000 American died from opioids because, effectively almost nothing changed.
Business in the pharma trade went on as usual. Oh, the opioid death toll became a news story, pill mills were closed, a few pushers went to jail and the number of prescriptions for opioids started to decline after its peak of 250 million in the year 2012.
Still, in the post-peak, in the years 2016, 2017 and 1208, in the State of Oklahoma, population under four million, about 18 million opioid prescriptions were written. Business as usual, right up to the Johnson & Johnson verdict, and likely, after it, since Johnson & Johnson plans to appeal the decision rather than change its ways.
Chris McGreal writes for Guardian US and is a former Guardian correspondent in Washington, Johannesburg and Jerusalem. He is the author of American Overdose, The Opioid Tragedy in Three Acts.