Johnson & Johnson fined €515m for ‘fuelling opioid crisis’

Remember Johnson & Johnson? That stalwart that lurks in your kitchen cabinet with marketing names like Listerine, Aveeno, Johnsons Baby Lotion, Actifed, Band-Aid, Benylin and Clean & Clear among many more? That Johnson & Johnson that was recently ordered to pay nearly $4.7 billion to 22 women because its Johnson Talcum Powder was judged to have caused cancer? That Johnson & Johnson that claims it’s trusted by Mums? It’s latest court appointment saw it fined €515 ($572) million over claims it ‘fuelled’ the opioid crisis sweeping Oklahoma.

In a landmark ruling, Johnson & Johnson was held responsible for helping to create a drug epidemic that has resulted in the deaths of at least 6,000 people in the state since 2000. And that’s just Oklahoma.

Johnson & Johnson - Opioid Crisis

Judge Thad Balkman ruled that the drugs giant ran a ‘false and dangerous’ sales campaign that aggressively pushed false claims about the safety of its pain killers and funded research and organisations with the aim of deceiving doctors about its products.

Oklahoma’s attorney general, Mike Hunter, said the ruling confirmed his claim that “Johnson & Johnson maliciously and diabolically created the opioid epidemic in our state”. To date, over 400,000 people across America have died as a result of opioid use.

“Today is a major victory for the state of Oklahoma, the nation and everyone who has lost a loved one because of an opioid overdose,” said Hunter. “Our evidence convincingly showed that this company did not just lie and mislead, they colluded with other companies en route to the deadliest man-made epidemic our nation has ever seen.”

There are over 2,000 claims pending against opioid manufacturers, distributors and pharmacy chains in America. Johnson & Johnson is estimated to have a staggering 50,000 lawsuits pending against it over a range of its products. A list of many of its products can be found on Wikipedia here.

In his ruling, Judge Balkman said Johnson & Johnson (and its subsidiary Janssen) trained its sales teams to downplay the risk of addiction and inform doctors the risk of addiction to opioid use was 2.7% or less when prescribed by a doctor.

“A key element in (Johnson & Johnson’s) opioid marketing strategy to overcome barriers to liberal opioid prescribing was its promotion of the concept that chronic pain was under-treated (creating a problem) and increased opioid prescribing was the solution,” Balkman wrote.

“Among other things, they sent sales representatives into Oklahoma doctors’ offices to deliver misleading messages, they disseminated misleading pamphlets, coupons, and other printed materials for patients and doctors, and they misleadingly advertised their drugs over the internet”.

Even though the sums awarded in these trials may seem large, they are put into context knowing that Johnson & Johnson pulled in over $15 billion in net income in 2018 alone and sits on assets valued at $152 billion. These fines are chump change.

The sheer volume of claims and lawsuits against Johnson and Johnson should bring into question whether they really are ‘trusted by mums’ – particularly with most products having a list of ingredients that most people have never heard of, can hardly pronounce and would be hard pushed to spell.

Take Johnson’s Baby Bath oil for example, developed (according to Johnson & Johnson) to “Keep nighttime calm and cozy by using Bedtime® baby bath wash”. A list of ingredients below just whisper calming undertones;

Aqua, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, PEG-80 Sorbitan Laurate, PEG-150 Pentaerythrityl Tetrastearate, Ethylhexylglycerin, Coconut Acid, Glycerin, PPG-2 Hydroxyethyl Cocamide, Decyl Glucoside, Sodium Methyl Cocoyl Taurate, Sodium Chloride, Citric Acid, Phenoxyethanol, Sodium Benzoate, Parfum

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