Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter Discusses The Johnson & Johnson Lawsuit Ruling
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The landmark decision in Oklahoma state court yesterday has huge implications for who should be held financially responsible for the nation's opioid crisis. A judge has ordered Johnson and Johnson to pay Oklahoma state $572 million. That was short of the $17 billion the state had demanded. Joining me now is the state attorney general of Oklahoma, Mike Hunter. He argued the case on his state's behalf.
MIKE HUNTER: Hi, Ailsa. Good to be with you all.
CHANG: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. Now, I want to start with how blame is getting doled out here because the supply chain behind this opioid epidemic involved many players - right? - not just manufacturers, not just the distributors, but also pharmacies that dispense the drugs, doctors who prescribe them. Johnson and Johnson pills made up - what? - less than 1% of the market in Oklahoma, but you call them, quote, "the kingpin of the opioid epidemic." Very briefly tell me why that is.
HUNTER: Well, you have to start at the beginning, and in the mid-'90s, there was literally a scheme developed by opioid - what are now opioid manufacturers to develop a magic drug that prescribers could use to decisively eliminate the pain of patients. And it was based on this idea that there needed to be a fifth vital sign - pain. So this all began with Johnson and Johnson buying a poppy farm in Tasmania down in Australia, and for the last two decades, they provided 60% of the active pharmaceutical ingredient to the rest of the opioid manufacturers in the country. So they made money when they sold their drugs. They made money when all of the other companies they supplied sold pharmaceutical opioids.
CHANG: But again, in Oklahoma, they make up less than 1% of the market there, so why should the bulk of the blame for the opioid epidemic in your state rests on Johnson and Johnson when there were so many other players that kept opioid pills flowing into your state?
HUNTER: Well, Ailsa, the conduct of opioid manufacturers, as far as I'm concerned - and our evidence, frankly, establishes this - their conduct was indivisible. They work together to head off policy efforts in states and in the federal government to try to mitigate the effect of the opioid epidemic. They participated in unbranded promotion of opioids. And at the end of the day, you're responsible for harm that you're a part of under our public nuisance law. If other companies were responsible, we identified them. There have been two defendants in this case who've settled with the state of Oklahoma.
CHANG: Right - Teva and Purdue Pharma.
HUNTER: Yes. So Johnson had the opportunity to do that. They also had the opportunity to bring in other parties in this lawsuit if they thought they were equally culpable, but they didn't do that. In fact, their position was that they had zero responsibility for the opioid epidemic.
CHANG: I want to talk about the $572 million. I mean, it sounds like a lot of money, but your state originally demanded more than 17 billion. Where is that money needed most right now?
HUNTER: Well, it's needed most to deal with what we believe are as many as 100,000 (inaudible) who have an addiction that has been caused by prescription opioids. So making sure that the state - in a way that's comprehensive, in a way that's systematic whether you live in a city or small towns - making sure that services in the category of rehabilitation and treatment counseling are available to folks so that we can get them well again...
CHANG: But that's the question.
HUNTER: ...So that they can reclaim their life...
HUNTER: ...And their future. Excuse me.
CHANG: I mean, how is Oklahoma equipped to ensure the money does get spent that way? I know the judge yesterday laid out an abatement plan for the state, but do you believe that Oklahoma is prepared to put that plan into action promptly?
HUNTER: Well, as chief law officer of the state, I've got something to say about that, as does the judge as well as state leaders. I've already started meetings with senior folks in the legislature and the governor's office, and I can promise you that we're going to work arm-in-arm to make sure that this money goes to the areas that the judge's order has identified, and they're essentially education, prevention - as I said, rehabilitation and treatment. And then there's a set aside for law enforcement. So those funds, as far as I'm concerned, are dedicated by court order. They're earmarked, and I'm confident we'll work together to get that money deployed the way it needs to be.
CHANG: The reason I'm asking these questions is there were some lessons learned after the tobacco settlement where there were also areas designated to spend money on, and a lot of the money ended up getting diverted, you know? So how does Oklahoma ensure that this money doesn't just eventually end up in roads or parks or whatever cities want and that all of it does go into prevention, into health care, into rehabilitation, as you stated that the judge's order contained?
HUNTER: Yeah, well, Ailsa, past is prologue, so there's already been money dedicated to what we believe is going to be the National Center for Addiction Science in Tulsa at the OSU Health Sciences Center. That center for wellness and recovery has already received $5 million plus in private funds. We're putting $200 million of the Purdue Pharma settlement...
HUNTER: ...Into that entity, and that entity is really going to be the beachhead, if you will, for how we deal with addiction in this state and around the country. So that's an important part of how we've already allocated the money. Earmarked for abating the epidemic in the state - the opioid epidemic - is the money that Teva paid to settle their part...
HUNTER: ...Of this lawsuit. So we're clear in this state that we've got to spend this money on what it's intended to be spent on, and that's abating the opioid epidemic.
CHANG: Now, you're the top lawyer in your state, but let me ask you this. Litigation is not going to singlehandedly pull the country out of the opioid crisis, so besides going after big companies with very deep pockets, what else can Oklahoma do now?
HUNTER: Well, we approach this as sort of a three-front challenge. We changed policy in this state last year. Seven bills were passed that give us more control over prescribing. It gives law enforcement more authority over pills coming into the state. This litigation is going to give us money to deal with the epidemic. And lastly, when we identify prescribers who are being reckless with their patients...
HUNTER: ...Or running pill mills, we're prosecuting them.
CHANG: All right. That's Oklahoma State Attorney General Mike Hunter.
Thanks very much.
HUNTER: Thanks, Ailsa. Thanks for having me on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.