Two Courts Debunk Persistent Opioid Myths

State and local governments filed thousands against drug companies since 2014 to sue them for creating the opioid crisis. They claim that they exaggerated the benefits of pain medications and minimized the risk. This theory is simple: The drug companies lied and people were killed.

Two recent rulings show how misleading this widely accepted narrative is. The two decisions acknowledged that the undertreatment of pain was a problem. Bona fide patients are less likely to become addicted or even die from prescription opioid use.

A 2014 lawsuit by three California counties joined by Oakland argued that opioid producers created a “public nuisance” by inducing increased drug use through misleading or false marketing campaigns. In a scathing November 1 ruling, Orange County Superior Court Judge Peter J. Wilson concluded that the plaintiffs had failed to prove any of their allegations.

A week later, the Oklahoma Supreme Court rejected similar claims against Johnson & Johnson, one of the defendants in the California case. The court said Cleveland County Judge Thad Balkman, who in a landmark 2019 ruling held the company liable for his state’s opioid-related problems, “erred in extending the public nuisance statute to the manufacturing, marketing, and selling of prescription opioids.”

Both cases emphasized opioids’ legitimate medical use and concluded that drugs companies couldn’t be held accountable for the abuse of their product. Many of the deaths from prescription opioid abuse occurred due to “improper use”. [opioid-related]Oklahoma Supreme Court noted that “few deaths” occurred when prescribed pharmaceutical opioids were used.

Justices stated that opioids “are currently a vital treatment option for chronic pain,” which is “a persistent, costly condition” that “affects many millions of Americans.” In addition, they noted that opioids can be safely and effectively managed as prescribed by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

Wilson refuted the claim that approximately 25% of opioid-treated patients become dependent on the drugs. He stated, “The more reliable data” suggests it is lower than 5%. He rejected the claims by defendants that they misled doctors and suggested that painkillers might make patients “drug-seeking” addicts.

Wilson pointed out that plaintiffs had not tried to differentiate between prescriptions considered medically necessary and inappropriate. Wilson stated that since both California’s and federal governments had determined the risks of opioid abuse outweigh the benefits, it is not possible for a sudden increase in prescriptions to be a public nuisance.