The liability of big pharma (Johnson & Johnson and Purdue Pharma, in particular, among others) in the opioid crisis is coming to light with the verdict and award of settlements for lawsuits related to the crisis.  Unfortunately, the opioid crisis moved beyond prescription opioids a long time ago.

Ever since the beginning of the popularity of the term “opioid crisis,” very little was done on an international or domestic level in the U.S. to stop the flow of these drugs or to treat the use of opioids as an addiction. Even now, that is still the case. Finally, this week, Johnson & Johnson had to acknowledge culpability in the crisis through the settlement of a  lawsuit claiming the company was negligent and lied about the addictive potential of their drugs. Purdue Pharmacy, along with many other companies, are also up on the docket in the Ohio lawsuit for their involvement in the crisis. 

Similar to the cigarette companies back in the day, the big pharma brands base their marketing of opioids to the medical community on lies about their addictive nature. Every day the opioid crisis drones on in the U.S. is about profit, not people.

The Settlements Will Continue

The recent settlement of a number of these lawsuits brought the facts to the front page of the news. Johnson & Johnson and Purdue Pharma both took hits and rightfully so (the Sackler family, who owns Purdue Pharma, could be forced to sell), and there are more to come. If companies refuse to admit liability and settle with the plaintiffs in these cases, then they have to go to court and plead their case. 

In the past, big pharma always denied culpability, instead of blaming the individual doctors for prescribing too many opioids, working with health care providers to encourage doctors to prescribe these addictive substances. The number of prescriptions that these companies give out is staggering, approximately 58.7 prescriptions per 100 people as of 2017 and depending on where you live, that number could double, triple, or be seven times higher. Some of these companies would sell many of these opioids, fueling the opioid crisis, and then profit on the drugs that prevent overdoses or help curb addiction, which is unconscionable. 

The lies these companies told that were exposed via numerous documentaries and articles are now proven in a court of law. These companies fueled the opioid crisis and not only misled the public but also caused an epidemic of addiction unlike any other seen in the U.S. before.


However, stopping the prescription opioid crisis is no longer enough. We are too late. Currently, the new drug on the street is fentanyl, sometimes interlaced with other non-prescription illegal painkillers such as heroin. Big pharma does have its hand in the fentanyl business, and it is prescribed in some cases, but the illegal fentanyl market is now the problem. Fentanyl is a killer, more addictive than heroin and much more deadly because it is harder to make and doses are not always carefully thought out in illegal markets.

The United States consumes the most opioids out of any other country, both prescription and illegal. Trump previously did not dip his toes too much into the opioid crisis. He changed his tone recently and blamed China for fueling the fentanyl crisis, which China denied, but shockingly Trump is not entirely wrong about this. Much of — but not all — the illegal supply of fentanyl does come from China. 

However, China claims that the U.S. needs to do more to help stop the opioid crisis, which is true as well. It is about both stopping the flow of the drug into the U.S., regulating big pharma companies who seek to profit off the prescription of opioids, and then, once illegal substances inevitably do enter the U.S. — as some will — providing funds for research and treatment instead of ostracization, criminalization, and negligence, which seems to be the policy of many areas in the U.S. surrounding addiction.

Something Needs To Happen

The opioid crisis is a very tricky issue, and certainly, no federal or local oversight will save everyone. However, if Trump wants to continue seeing this issue as a China vs US issue, he is going to have a lot of difficulties curbing the opioid crisis. Incarceration of drug users will never solve the problem and only serves to clog up an already overwhelmed prison system and criminalize an ongoing health issue. Going after big pharma certainly helps, but it is not going to solve the problem that currently exists: illegal opioids, fentanyl in particular. The true solution needs to include a focus on the addicts themselves and not just the providers and pushers of drugs. 

It is encouraging that the pharma companies are finally being held accountable and that restrictions on the use of opioids are being put in place, but what about those who are already addicted and turning to illegal substances? The current, mainstream treatments are often times not enough to break the cycle of addiction. There needs to be better research and a broader treatment of addiction as a health issue in combination with policies, both federal and international, that do not continue to perpetuate the opioid crisis that emerged and is now the most urgent drug problem in the United States today.

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Margaret Valenti

Margaret Valenti is the Editor of Generation Z Voice at The Pavlovic Today. 

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