The opiate lawsuit gamble taken recently by Apache County is looking like a better bet.

This week an Oklahoma judge ordered drug maker Johnson & Johnson to pay the state $572 million to help offset the impact of the epidemic use of prescription painkillers.

Johnson & Johnson said it will appeal the verdict.

The state had asked for $17.5 billion to cover the enormous toll of the abuse of prescription painkillers that has led to at least 6,000 deaths in Oklahoma in recent years. The state argued the drug company deceptively marketed the painkillers, downplaying the threat of addictions and overdoses.

Apache County Attorney Michael Whiting said, “This is one of the reasons I made the decision to file Apache County’s case in state court and not go with the Multidistrict Litigation (MDL), otherwise known as the ‘wild cattle stampede or lemming run’ out in Cleveland, Ohio with the thousands of other claimants in Federal District Court.”

“We need Apache County’s case to be heard here, by our people, in Apache County; not thousands of miles away by a judge who knows nothing about our culture, our people, and our way of life. The decision I made to file our claim in state court and avoid federal court, is based on what’s best for the people of Apache County, not the big pharmaceutical companies.”

Navajo County filed its case in federal court, joining what amounts to a class action suit brought by counties and cities all over the country.

That national lawsuit involves some 2,000 cases in the National Prescription Opiate Litigation, now pending before a federal judge in Ohio. The case so far involves 22 defendants, all opiate manufacturers or distributors, including Johnson & Johnson.

The Oklahoma judge ruled that the Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen marketed the opioid painkillers Duragesic and Nucynta in a way that created a “public nuisance.” Johnson & Johnson also manufactured the raw materials that other companies turned into prescription painkillers.

Ohio has previously reached settlements with other drug companies, including an $85 million settlement with Teva Pharmaceuticals of Jerusalem and a $270 million settlement with Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin.

The most recent settlement with Johnson & Johnson represents the cost of one year of the state’s proposed response to the ongoing epidemic of addiction and overdoses. The state had argued it needed to maintain that program for 20 years to cope with the damage done by the deceptive marketing campaign, but the judge ruled the state only presented evidence to support the need for the first year.

Opioids caused about 1,000 overdose deaths in Arizona in 2018, up 20 percent from the year before.

The Arizona Department of Health Services reports that between June 2017 and August of 2019 the state suffered at least 3,523 opioid deaths and 25,000 overdoses. Some 1,550 babies have been born with neonatal abstinence syndrome caused by exposure to opiates in the womb, with potential long-term effects. Emergency medical crews have administered some 16,000 doses of naloxcone in that time, or the death toll would have been far higher.

Doctors continue to hand out about 240,000 new opioid prescriptions every month in Arizona.

Navajo County has relatively high death rates from drug overdoses. Apache County has one of the lowest death rates in the state, although it still reported 22 overdose deaths in 2018. The Apache County death rate per 100,000 populations in 2018 stood at 10. However, the rate hit 23 per 100,000 in Navajo County. That compares to a statewide average of 19 per 100,000.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

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