Big pharmacies made billions from selling opioid-based products, which contributed greatly to its widespread use, and subsequent health crisis in the U.S. Photo credit: Danilyuk Pavel

Big Pharma companies to pay $26 billion settlement for their part in opioid epidemic

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Companies are ordered to pay for their role in creating one of the largest public health crises to date.

In late February, New Jersey-based Johnson and Johnson along with three other pharmaceutical juggernauts agreed to pay for their role in pushing synthetic heroin. The total $26 billion settlement is to be dispersed to satisfy over 3,000 civil lawsuits from state and local governments. Each company has an assigned number they will contribute.

The former will pay in sum, $5 billion to their pharmaceutical subsidiary Janssen in yearly payments over the course of almost a decade towards the settlement. This comes after the 136-year-old New Brunswick drug company confirmed the end of its opioid operation following a $230 million New York lawsuit settlement in 2021. That said, the company is turning its sights to Chinese biotech in the interim.

“We recognize the opioid crisis is a tremendously complex public health issue, and we have deep sympathy for everyone affected,” expressed Executive Vice President and General Counsel for Johnson & Johnson, Michael Ullmann, in a July 2021 press release.

All the while, drug wholesalers AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson will cover the rest, a combined $21 billion over about two decades’ time. 

For all parties involved, the deal was a quid pro quo; or an exchange for plaintiffs to drop their civil lawsuits against the four companies. In the end, States and local municipalities signed the agreement, vowing to not pursue future legal action. 

“This settlement represents real accountability,” said North Carolina Attorney General  who helped broker the deal, Josh Stein. “There will be people alive next year because of the programs and services we will be able to fund because of these settlement proceeds.”

| Watch: How Mutulu Shakur birthed the most progressive heroin treatment program in the U.S. then ended up a political prisoner

Johnson and Johnson building in Ontario, Canada. Photo credit: Raysonho on Creative Commons

To date, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s National Center for Health Statistics data estimated that over 100,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the U.S. between April 2020 until the same month in 2021. This is an increase of 28.5 percent from the 78,056 deaths during the same period in 2019. 

Overall, about 500,000 Americans die from opioid related overdoses per year. Notably, Johnson & Johnson and the three other relevant drug suppliers asserted that the settlement is not an admission to any wrongdoing, liability for manufacturing or distributing large quantities of pain medications as addiction rates surged. 

While happy that some accountability is occurring, many believe this is a small price for multi-billion dollar companies being reckless with synthetic heroin, a schedule 1 narcotic according to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). 

Derived from morphine extracted from the opium poppy seed plant, heroin is an opioid drug that affects a variety of brain receptors, including those controlling heart rate, sleep, as well as breathing. Pain medication like OxyContin or Vicodin have similar effects, with research suggesting misuse could open itself to full-blown heroin use.

Nevertheless, a clear bias in the practice and distribution of medicine exists, especially along racial boundaries.  

“[At the pharmacy,] [w]e used to pace narcotic prescriptions by 30-day intervals to steer [patients] away from addiction. No matter what, Black people [were] denied outright unless a pharmacist had a relationship with them. [But] here comes Sal, though–you need 600 pills? No problem,” a former pharmacist assistant told  Ark Republic. 

The source, who wished to remain anonymous asserted, “Such a difference from how they peddled crack in the 80’s and blamed [Black people]. Drug addiction is a[n] everybody problem now.”

Indeed, the U.S. government both demonized and criminalized narcotics especially after Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in June 1971. Afterwards, as members of his Administration have admitted, the crack down resulted as a way to target the liberal, antiwar left and Black Americans. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is linked to doling out the highly addictive substance to Black  neighborhoods in Los Angeles to fund the 1980’s Contra war. However, plans did not go as planned, seeing as the face of a drug addict changed from urban Black in the 1980’s, to rural or even wealthy white today.

According to Forbes, at least 85 percent of the settlement will go towards addiction treatment and prevention services. This is the second-largest settlement of civil litigation in U.S. history after the $206 billion tobacco settlement in 1998. The first payments are slated for April.

Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, policy, domestic, international relations, and the African and Latin Diasporas.

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