NORMAN--In the 1980’s, Johnson & Johnson needed a reliable supply of opium for a popular product, Tylenol with codeine.
So the health care conglomerate, better known for baby shampoo and Band-Aids, bought a business that grew and processed opium poppies in faraway Tasmania, off the coast of Australia. By 2015, at the height of the nation’s opioid epidemic, Johnson & Johnson was the leading supplier for the raw ingredients in painkillers in the United States.
It even developed a special strain of poppy, called Norman, that produced a core painkilling agent used in OxyContin, which would become Purdue Pharma’s blockbuster drug.
Purdue, the Sackler family that owns it and the nation’s major drug distributors, like McKesson, have gotten most of the blame for much of the opioid crisis.
But on Monday, a judge in Oklahoma singled out Johnson & Johnson, ordering it to pay the state $572 million and ruling that the company should be held responsible for decades of opioid addiction and the thousands of overdose deaths in the state.
The judge cited the company’s overly aggressive marketing tactics: Sales representatives were coached to avoid the “addiction ditch”--the negatives associated with drug use and dependence--when encouraging doctors to prescribe opioids for patients with moderate to severe pain.
For Johnson & Johnson, which has said it plans to appeal, the decision represents another blow to its reputation as the trusted brand of parents, doctors and nurses.
Some question how long the company can weather what has been a series of damaging setbacks to its brand, including a spate of lawsuits over whether its talcum powder led to ovarian cancer, and high-profile cases over other potentially flawed products, like pelvic mesh and the anti-stroke drug Xarelto, which has caused excessive bleeding.
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