US opioid crisis: Native American tribes reach $590m settlement

Three US drug distributors and drugmaker Johnson & Johnson agree to deal resolving tribal claims over opioid epidemic.

Photo shows 5-mg pills of Oxycodone.
Opioid addiction and deaths are a nationwide problem in the United States, but many Indigenous communities have been particularly hard hit [File: Keith Srakocic/AP Photo]

The three largest United States drug distributors and drugmaker Johnson & Johnson have agreed to pay $590m to resolve claims by Native American tribes that the companies fuelled an opioid epidemic in their communities, according to court filings.

The filing in US District Court in Cleveland, Ohio lays out details of settlements with Johnson & Johnson and distribution companies AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson.

The tribal settlements are part of more than $40bn worth of settlements, penalties and fines rung up over the years by companies for their role in the opioid epidemic that has swept across the US.

The drugs, including prescription ones such as OxyContin and illicit ones like heroin and illegally made fentanyl, have been linked to more than 500,000 deaths across the country in the past two decades.

Many US tribes have been hit hard by the addiction and overdose crisis. One study cited in the settlement found that Native Americans in 2015 had the highest per capita rate of opioid overdose of any population group.

More than 400 tribes and intertribal organisations representing about 80 percent of Indigenous citizens have sued over opioids. All federally recognised tribes will be able to participate in the newly filed settlements, even if they did not sue over opioids.

Under the deal, New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson will pay $150m over two years and the distribution companies will contribute $440m over seven years. Each tribe would decide whether to participate. The bulk of the money is intended to help tribes address the epidemic’s harms in their communities by funding treatment and other programs.

Johnson & Johnson reported $20.8bn in net income in 2021.

The newly announced agreement is separate from a $75m settlement between the Cherokee Nation and the three distribution companies reached last year ahead of a trial.

The same four companies are nearing the final stages of approval of settlements worth $26bn with state and local governments across the US. They have until later this month to decide whether enough government entities have signed on to continue in the deal.

That proposed settlement did not cover lawsuits and potential claims by the US’s 574 federally recognised Native American tribes and Alaska Native villages, which have long experienced higher rates of drug overdose deaths than the national average.

Opioid addiction and deaths are a nationwide problem in the US. In Washington, DC, a recent spate of overdose deaths, potentially from illegal fentanyl, has local authorities concerned.

More than 3,300 lawsuits have been filed — largely by state, local and tribal governments seeking to hold companies responsible for the opioid epidemic.

The lawsuits accuse the distributors of lax controls that allowed massive amounts of addictive painkillers to be diverted into illegal channels, and drugmakers including J&J of downplaying the addiction risk in their opioid marketing. The companies deny any wrongdoing.

More than 100,000 people died from drug overdoses in the US during the 12-month period ending April 2021, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a nearly 30 percent uptick in fatalities.

Overdose deaths in 2020 had soared to 93,000 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, eclipsing the 72,000 drug deaths reached the previous year, according to US data.

Source: News Agencies