Walmart and Johnson and Johnson, two of America’s corporate titans, each acted in ways that helped to fuel the opioid crisis that federal experts estimate claims 128 Americans’ lives each day, news media investigations show.
Walmart ignored repeated complaints from its own pharmacists and permitted the over-subscribing of hundreds of thousands of potent prescription painkillers by sketchy doctors across the country, with the company’s refusal to deal with rising problems leading federal prosecutors to ready hefty civil and criminal cases, according to ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative site.
The retailing giant, however, pulled powerful political strings, with Trump Administration officials stepping in to stymie potential lawsuits and criminal charges against Walmart — despite a previously secret settlement the company earlier had signed, pledging to step up its oversight of prescription drugs it sold, ProPublica reported. Reporters Jesse Eisinger and James Bandler wrote:
“[This] Walmart investigation comes at a time when the Trump administration is being assailed for legal favoritism and cronyism. Attorney General Bill Barr has inserted himself into multiple investigations of Trump friends and associates … The Trump [Justice Department] has also pulled back on white-collar and corporate investigations and prosecutions. White-collar prosecutions are at a record low. Walmart itself seems to have already benefited from the Trump administration’s approach to corporate misconduct. The company was the subject of a seven-year investigation into bribery allegations in Mexico and around the globe. The Obama administration sought $600 million in fines, according to The New York Times, which broke the story, but failed to reach a resolution with the company. The Trump DOJ settled the charges for $282 million in June 2019. Even as Trump’s [Justice Department] was preventing its own prosecutors from getting tough on Walmart, the Trump administration told the public it was confronting the nation’s opioid crisis. In March 2018, Trump said his administration would hold those responsible accountable, pledging that federal lawsuits against opioid drug makers ‘will happen.’ The same month that [then-deputy U.S. Attorney General] Rosenstein declined to revive the criminal case against Walmart, Trump signed legislation aimed at curbing the opioid crisis. A key element was a public-private partnership with several companies, including Walmart, to implement measures such as opioid addiction education initiatives … For those who spent years investigating Walmart, the chasm between the public posturing and the behavior behind closed doors has been deeply discouraging …”
Walmart insists it did no wrong and has fired back at federal prosecutors — especially the Republican Texans whom ProPublica said built the most damaging cases — of overzealous and even unethical conduct. The prosecutors have not only denounced the Walmart defense, but a respected U.S. assistant attorney general has resigned in protest of what he called political meddling in meritorious and needed cases against a corporate wrongdoer.
Prosecutors expressed frustration that their work on Walmart had stalled. But members of Congress have said they may take up the charges in public hearings.
J&J ‘super poppy’ provided key ingredient for rapid, easier opiods
As for J&J, a Washington Post investigation has detailed how the drug maker pioneered the genetic engineering of a “super poppy.” That plant was bred to contain high levels of thebaine, a chemical key to the swift, efficient manufacture of the most popular opioids — oxycodone and hydrocodone — but without also producing problematic morphine.
J&J, with prizes, promotions, and lots of cash, pushed growers in distant, bucolic Tasmania to plant and harvest the new poppy variety. The company, even as criticism rose and so did the opioid deaths, prodded U.S. regulators to allow poppy imports and refinement, leading to ever more opioid manufacturing. As reporter Peter Whoriskey wrote for the Washington Post:
“From 2013 to 2015, near the peak of U.S. opioid production, the Johnson & Johnson subsidiary in Tasmania was harvesting thousands of acres of poppies and the U.S. subsidiary was manufacturing enough oxycodone and hydrocodone — the two most abused prescription opioid drugs — to capture half or more of the U.S. market, according to company documents. So, while Purdue Pharma, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals and other manufacturers are often linked to the opioid crisis, it was two subsidiaries of Johnson & Johnson, a brand better known for baby powder and Band-Aids, that were producing the narcotics in many of the abused pills. One was Tasmanian Alkaloids, the poppy-processing outfit that worked with farmers in Australia, and the other was Noramco, a U.S. company that processed the Australian poppy materials into drugs such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. As a crackdown on opioid production was underway in 2016, Johnson & Johnson sold off both companies.”
J&J insists its activities were not only legal to the highest standard but also heavily regulated. The company has denied responsibility for a role in the opioid-overdose crisis.
But the newspaper noted that “landmark opioid litigation in Oklahoma … ended with the judge ordering Johnson & Johnson to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to address the state’s opioid crisis, and his decision cited [the company’s Tasmanian operations’] role in opioid production.”
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them by dangerous drugs, especially in the abuse of opioids and the synthetic and illicit products for which prescription painkillers opened the door. Big Pharma, politicians, regulators, doctors, insurers, and public health officials all share blame for taking far too long to recognize the scourge of prescription painkillers and for them to even begin to respond.
News organizations like ProPublica and the Washington Post deserve credit for their persistence in digging hard and deep, so Americans can understand how the nation’s prescription drug scandal burgeoned, whether by officials looking the wrong way or getting gulled by unacceptable influences. We need to know whether regulators and policy makers made poor judgments, not only to bring to justice those who may have committed wrongs but also to avert future lapses. This is difficult and demanding work for federal officials that should be praised and rewarded, not meddled with by partisans. We also may need to recognize that scientific advancements, including genetic modification and manufacture of potent drugs, may be beneficial — but it needs rigorous oversight, so people don’t suffer or die as a consequence.
We’ve got a lot of work to do, not only to keep attacking our opioid-overdose crisis, but also to preventing a next version of it from harming the public again.