A $572.1 million verdict against Johnson & Johnson in an Oklahoma courtroom on Monday appeared to be a pivotal moment in the country’s ongoing struggle with opioid addiction — until an even bigger one came to light.
Turns out that drugmaker Purdue Pharma, slung with most of the blame for fueling the crisis, has been talking with the plaintiffs behind a stack of lawsuits toward a potential $7 billion settlement. Talks have been ongoing for months. A deal would bankrupt the company, the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal report, and force out members of the Sackler family who have led Purdue Pharma since 1952. The family would put $3 billion of its own toward the deal, according to the Post’s reporting.
The agreement would close out a federal case as well as lawsuits filed by 40 state attorneys general, including Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Purdue reached a separate, $270 million settlement with Oklahoma in March.
All of the zeroes being thrown around surely heighten the sense of vindication that must be washing over people who’ve lost family members and friends to addiction, and to the communities and states vexed by this intractable problem. But any sense of satisfaction is surely fleeting. The opioid problem is broader, more costly and has wrought more emotional damage than even fat settlements from the likes of Johnson & Johnson and Purdue Pharma can ever recover.
Purdue, the drugmaker that introduced OxyContin to America in 1996, would be hobbled by the reported settlement, just a dozen years after paying $635 million in fines for aggressively marketing painkillers despite their known risks. It would emerge from bankruptcy as a public trust, according to the Post, and contribute to the settlement agreement with proceeds from continued sales of OxyContin.
But what then? Many other drug makers and suppliers have been involved in the production and sale of opioid pain relievers. Exhibit A is Johnson & Johnson, which developed a poppy to deliver more a potent pain reliever, then produced it in mass quantities to supply to companies such as Purdue.
The history of what happened after that is well worn: Doctors prescribed opioids by the millions. In Oklahoma alone, more than 326 million pills were prescribed in 2015, or 110 for every adult in the Sooner State. The pattern repeated around the country, sparking addictions that in many cases led people to self-medicate or graduate to oxycodone’s more potent cousin, fentanyl. Overdoses spiked, leading to tens of thousands of deaths each year, and turning upside down a medical establishment focused on alleviating pain.
“Purdue knew this drug was addictive from day one,” Kathleen Scarpone, formerly of Methuen, who lost her 25-year-old son, Jason, to an overdose, told WBUR. “They infiltrated the whole medical community across the country with brochures and flyers and information about how this drug was not addictive, and the medical community believed them.” Scarpone was demonstrating at a court hearing earlier this month where lawyers for Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey were arguing that a state judge should allow their lawsuit against Purdue to proceed.
Fact is, there are many, many other companies, health care institutions and providers that bear some portion of responsibility — though it should give no legal cover to Johnson & Johnson or Purdue Pharma for the parts they’ve played.
And taken on a grand scale, the effect of the opioid scourge is far larger than even draining the resources of Purdue Pharma could repay. A study by researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pegged the economic cost of opioid abuse and overdoses at $78.5 billion as of 2013, and even that figure was conservative given the “many costs we were unable to measure, such as the reduction in quality of life to those who are dependent.” Imagine what that number would look like if recalculated today.
Should the judgement against Johnson & Johnson hold up, and should the Purdue settlement come to pass, everyone touched by this crisis will be able take some satisfaction. And one hopes the money will end up where it’s so desperately needed — paying for treatment beds and programs, as well as facilities geared toward longterm addiction recovery.
But one thing is for sure: Those companies will never have enough money to pay for the monster they helped to create.