Judge Thad Balkman has ordered Johnson and Johnson (J&J) to pay the state of Oklahoma $572 million for their contribution to the opioid crisis in the state, citing a Brandeis professor’s testimony in his decision. This decision is the first time a pharmaceutical company has been deemed responsible for contributing to the opioid crisis in the United States.
Dr. Andrew Kolodny (HS), the co-director of the Opioid Policy Research at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management and the co-founder of the organization Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, was an expert witness presented by Oklahoma Attorney General, Mike Hunter. Kolodny told The Brandeis Hoot in an interview that Hunter first approached him to be an expert witness in Nov. 2017. After testifying for six days on the stand, Kolodny heard that the lawyers from J&J wanted to strike his entire testimony.
“It was concerning for me,” Kolodny told The Hoot. He said that the lawyers from J&J knew that his testimony would not be stricken, but it was worth trying. “J&J is a very wealthy company,” said Kolodny. “They can afford to pay lawyers to do things that are ridiculous. I was worried for a split second and told not to worry about it.”
This was not the first time J&J lawyers attempted to block Kolodny’s testimony. They initially tried to block him from testifying altogether, according to Kolodny. J&J lawyers filed a Daubert motion against Kolodny, which the Oklahoma lawyers told him would never hold.
The Daubert motion is based off the Daubert standard, which Cornell Law School defines as “the standard used by a trial judge to assess whether an expert witness’s scientific testimony is based on scientifically valid reasoning which can properly be applied to the facts at issue.”
Kolodny explained that Judge Balkman accepted the evidence that J&J had participated in a multi-faceted marketing campaign disguised as education. “This campaign changed the way opioids are prescribed in Oklahoma and the U.S. and ultimately changed the culture of prescribing that led to a soaring increase in opioid prescription,” Kolodny told The Hoot.
Even though Kolodny believed that Oklahoma was asking for too much money, he also said that Judge Balkman should have given the state a higher award. “This landmark decision should be applauded with regard to his ruling about the cause of the epidemic,” said Kolodny. “What he ruled was that pharmaceutical companies, including Johnson and Johnson, are a large reason we’re dealing with an epidemic.” The award that Oklahoma received was significantly lower than the $17.2 billion that they sought out from J&J.
“The judge’s decision validated what many in the public health community have been saying for over a decade,” said Kolodny. “That was a landmark decision.”
He said that if a state with less than 4 million people was awarded $572 million and each state got a proportion amount of money based on their population, it would be a $50 billion judgement. “$50 billion from one company is not bad,” he said. “It wasn’t bad, but it should have been better.”
J&J was the only pharmaceutical company that Oklahoma took to trial. According to an NPR article, Hunter’s lawsuit had initially included Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals, but both settled with the state for $270 million and $85 million, respectively.
Kolodny said that he was unable to pinpoint the biggest contributor to the opioid epidemic in the U.S. He explained that Purdue Pharmaceuticals and the Sackler family are credited for bringing about these highly addictive drugs and “packag[ing] them for common, chronic, long term diseases.”
“They turned an old and expensive opioid molecule into a billion dollar product.” He added that in the U.S., J&J is most likely the biggest player because they produced and sold opium to other pharmaceutical companies, including generic companies.
Kolodny said he strongly believes that J&J’s actions led to a “public health catastrophe.”
“I think that they should pay to clean up their mess, rather than fight it at trial. You make a mess, you clean it up and you apologize.”
The U.S. is in an opioid addiction epidemic, according to Kolodny. “An epidemic refers to the sharp increase in diseases over a short period of time,” he explained. He went on to say that addiction to opioids was very uncommon prior to 1995-96. The increase in opioid prescriptions, however, catalyzed opioid addiction in the U.S.
“The epidemic of opioid addiction has caused an opioid crisis,” explained Kolodny. “This includes a group of Americans who were not a part of this epidemic, but part of the heroin epidemic of the 1970s.” According to Kolodny, many African American and Latino men became addicted to heroin during that time.
According to Kolodny, the opioid addiction epidemic that has affected millions may be coming to an end, but the opioid crisis will continue for decades because so many Americans are currently addicted. “There are many things that we can do to help the people,” he explained. “If they get really good treatment, the problems related to the crisis will start to improve.”