Johnson & Johnson to pay $230m in New York opioids case

US pharmaceutical giant agrees to pay up to $230m to settle claims it helped drive a deadly opioid epidemic.

UN Drugs report
This 2018 file photo shows an arrangement of prescription oxycodone pills in New York [File: Mark Lennihan/AP Photo]

United States pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson has agreed to pay up to $230m to resolve claims the company helped drive an opioid crisis, the New York state attorney general said on Saturday.

Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement that “the opioid epidemic has wreaked havoc on countless communities across New York state and the rest of the nation, leaving millions still addicted to dangerous and deadly opioids.

“Johnson & Johnson helped fuel this fire, but today they’re committing to leaving the opioid business – not only in New York, but across the entire country. Opioids will no longer be manufactured or sold in the United States by J&J,” James said.

“We are also delivering up to $230 million to fund opioid prevention, treatment, and education efforts across New York state.”

The deal involves a lawsuit brought by James in 2019 and removes Johnson & Johnson from a trial that is slated to begin next week on Long Island.

It is part of a slew of litigation over an epidemic linked to nearly 500,000 deaths during the last twenty years.

“So effectively, by paying the settlement money, [Johnson & Johnson] has removed itself from a trial that is utterly unprecedented in terms of its scope,” Al Jazeera’s Mike Hanna reported from Washington, DC. Hanna added that the upcoming trial will be by jury – something that has “never happened before in this type of case”.

In its own statement on Saturday, Johnson & Johnson downplayed the attorney general’s announcement. It said the settlement involved two prescription painkillers – developed by a subsidiary and accounting for less than 1 percent of the market – that are already no longer sold in the US.

The settlement was “not an admission of liability or wrongdoing by the company”, Johnson & Johnson said. It added that its actions “relating to the marketing and promotion of important prescription pain medications were appropriate and responsible”.

The company also said the settlements were consistent with its prior agreement to pay $5bn to settle opioid claims by states, cities, counties and tribal governments nationwide.

The healthcare company and the largest US drug distributors – AmerisourceBergen Corp, Cardinal Health Inc and McKesson Corp – have proposed paying a combined $26bn to end thousands of opioid lawsuits.

Tuesday’s opioids trial is one of several scheduled for this year, with others under way in California and West Virginia.

West Virginia has the nation’s highest fatal opioid overdose rate. Overdoses have surged since the early 2000s, when producers of prescription drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone ramped up sales through pharmacies and doctors with few controls.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said nearly 500,000 people died from opioid overdoses from 1999 to 2019.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies