Editorial: Opioid verdicts have to hurt
What is the cost of a crisis?
The opioid epidemic has been a greedy monster, demanding more and more resources from all levels of government as well as hospitals and insurance companies over the last 20 years. It has eaten lives and devoured communities. In 2013 alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says opioids had a monetary cost of $78.5 billion.
That was six years ago. That was 13 years or so into the deadly dance of prescription opioids leading to heroin leading to synthetic opioids. Take that 2013 number as an average and multiply it by two decades and you get a cost of $1.5 trillion.
The scope of the problem makes the ruling in an Oklahoma court that Johnson & Johnson — yes, the people who make baby shampoo and Tylenol — must pay $572 million to “abate” that state’s drug problem a little less staggering than it might otherwise seem.
Being told to pay more than half a billion dollars is a hard pill for any company to swallow, but taken as a cost of doing business, it is probably on the level with capital improvements to facilities. It’s definitely a lot less than the $4.7 billion verdict rendered last year over asbestos in the company’s baby powder.
Johnson & Johnson is just one of the players in the opioid game, and the Oklahoma case is just one of many lawsuits looking to follow in the footsteps of the massive tobacco lawsuit that, coincidentally, struck a blow at the nation’s cigarette manufacturers at about the same time the opioid crisis was born.
That 1998 settlement sends $350 million to Pennsylvania annually, and a second settlement Attorney General Josh Shapiro negotiated last year increased that by another $357 million in 2018-19 and $279 million for the ensuing 12 years.
Shapiro is also one of 40 AGs suing Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, claiming the potent narcotic was pushed despite early signs of addiction.
“While Pennsylvania paid the price, Purdue made more than $35 billion in revenue,” he said in May.
And that’s the root of the disease. As with any penalty in criminal or civil court, it has to hurt enough to stop the behavior. It has to cost enough to make it unprofitable for a company to churn out poison that local, state or federal government has to pay to cure.
Maybe $572 million will be enough in Oklahoma. Maybe it won’t. The real value in that verdict is in being a ground-breaker in the opioid crisis.