Last week, Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman ruled drugmaker Johnson & Johnson helped cause the opioid crisis in the Sooner state by using deceptive marketing tactics and downplaying the addictive nature of their painkillers. The judge ruled that J&J had to pay the state $572 million. Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter had sought $17.5 billion, claiming the opioid crisis has claimed 6,000 Oklahomans lives.

"The defendants caused an opioid crisis that is evidenced by increased rates of addiction, overdose deaths and neonatal abstinence syndrome in Oklahoma," Balkman said. Balkman's ruling was the first to hold a pharmaceutical company responsible for the opioid crisis. Johnson & Johnson has announced it will appeal the ruling. Three observations:

First, opioids were approved by the Food & Drug Administration, a government agency, for use as a painkiller after extensive study. The FDA first approved opioids for pain relief in the 1970s. Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), codeine, morphine, and several others. The government (FDA) shares significant blame for the opioid crisis in the country, but don't expect anyone to admit it.

Second, the opioid crisis is real. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, also a government agency, 130 people in the U.S. die each day from overdosing on opioids. They estimate the economic impact to the country at $78.5 billion annually. They claim up to one third of those prescribed opioids abuse them. The Institute says that in 2017, there were 388 overdose deaths­­­ involving opioids in Oklahoma - a rate of 10.2. deaths per 100,000 people, compared to the national rate of 14.6 deaths per 100,000 people.

Third, opioids have made life bearable for those with chronic pain. The vast majority of those who take opioids are not addicts. There are people who legitimately need painkillers and the government crackdown on physicians prescribing abilities have put doctors and those patients in a quandary.

The blitz to sue drug companies over the opioid crisis isn't just about public health. Much like the tobacco settlement cases of bygone years, money is the driver. A big settlement is mistakenly seen as a windfall for government, but companies don't pay settlements or taxes - people do. Johnson & Johnson will not "absorb" these big settlements. It will simply pass them onto their customers in the form of a price increase. It is said the drug companies made claims about their product that were untrue, but when does personal responsibility kick in? Is it government's responsibility to protect ourselves from ourselves? When does the buyer assume the risk that a product may fail to meet expectations or have defects? Caveat emptor!

Steve Fair is chair of the 4th District of the Republican Party.

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