Johnson & Johnson contributed to opioid crisis, encouraged doctors to prescribe pain killers to boost profits

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A judge in Oklahoma on Monday ruled against Johnson & Johnson, the deep-pocketed corporate giant, and ordered it to pay the state $572 million in the first trial of an opioid manufacturer for the destruction wrought by prescription painkillers.

Johnson & Johnson, which contracted with poppy growers in Tasmania, supplied 60 percent of the opiate ingredients that drug companies used for opioids like oxycodone, the state had argued, and aggressively marketed opioids to doctors and patients as safe and effective. A Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, made its own opioids — a pill whose rights it sold in 2015, and a fentanyl patch that it still produces. 

“The opioid crisis is an imminent danger and menace to Oklahomans,” Judge Thad Balkman, of Cleveland County District Court, said in delivering his decision. The ruling was a resounding victory for Oklahoma’s attorney general, Mike Hunter. The closely watched verdict could be a dire harbinger for some two dozen opioid makers, distributors and retailers that face more than 2,000 similar lawsuits around the country.

Johnson & Johnson, one the world’s biggest health care companies, said it would appeal. The judge’s decision came after two other drug manufacturers that produce opioids, Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceutical, settled with Oklahoma earlier this year for $270 million and $85 million, respectively. In doing so, the companies did not admit wrongdoing. As a consequence, Oklahoma faced the steep climb of pinning the blame for its opioid crisis mainly on just one defendant.

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