ENID, Okla. — On the heels of a $572 million victory against Johnson & Johnson for the company's role in the opioid epidemic, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said he's far from finished.

Hunter was featured speaker at a Garfield County Bar Association meeting Tuesday in Northern Oklahoma College Enid's Gantz Center. Surrounded by fellow lawyers, Hunter talked about why he pursued the case, why he pursued the companies he did and what comes next.

"I hasten to say that I'm not done," Hunter said. "There are some other defendants that we're looking at. This isn't necessarily the end of what will be available for the state."

Nearly a billion dollars secured to combat opioid addiction in Oklahoma, three major contributors to the crisis held to account, and there could be more to come.

The J&J verdict, the $270 and $85 million settlements with Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, are just battles in a war that will last years for states and attorneys general nationwide, he said.

"Over the 50 states, (pharmaceutical companies) are going to be held accountable for their decisions about marketing this drug and ignoring the consequences of it," he said.

Hunter is hopeful his efforts, and those of other attorneys general, will change the behavior of pharmaceutical companies in the long term.

"They're going to be dealing with this for the next 10 years, and hopefully they'll learn from it because it's going to cost them a lot of money," he said.

Purdue Pharma, which maintained a lengthy business partnership with Johnson & Johnson, is expected to fall into bankruptcy "in the next week or two," Hunter said. Despite Purdue's financial situation, he's confident Oklahoma will get what it's owed.

"The good news is that we're outside the preference period, so we've got a settlement with Purdue and everyone else will have to wait," he said.

As he has before, Hunter referred to Johnson & Johnson as the "kingpin of the opioid crisis" in the country.

In court, the company fought that characterization, and repeatedly argued it's own pills made up 1% of the market.

However, through a poppy farm in Tasmania, J&J provided the raw materials needed for opioid production to a host of manufacturers, and more of it than any other entity, the state argued.

"They conceal and ignore the fact they provided, for 20 years, 60 percent of the active pharmaceutical ingredient for the rest of the country," Hunter said. J&J made money on its own drugs, and it made money from others producing and pushing more of the same.

Even as the epidemic became apparent, drug companies organized to head off policy changes that might loosen addiction's grip on communities across the country, Hunter said.

While a "kingpin" has been named, he said drug companies are often on the same page.

"As far as I'm concerned, their conduct was indivisible," he said.

Tracking from the mid-1990s to 2006 and 2007, opioid deaths increased by a factor of 15, he said.

"You know what supply did? The supply of opioids into the country increased by a factor of 10," he said.

J&J's response at the time was to say that correlation does not equal causation, he said, even as overdose deaths due to prescription and street opioids continued, and continue, in the tens of thousands.

"More people died a year ago of overdoses attributable to opioids than died in war in Vietnam," Hunter said.

As states go about assigning blame and fighting for compensation, they also should invest in a multi-pronged approach to win "the war," Hunter said.

Alleged perpetrators are getting plenty of attention, but the focus can't stray from the victims.

"There needs to be state funded, hopefully mostly through this judgment, rehabilitation and treatment services available throughout the state ... so that anybody suffering with an addiction is able to get help, get control of their life, and get their future back," he said.

Following the ruling, Johnson & Johnson said attorneys they plan to appeal the $572 million civil judgment.

"The Company is confident it has strong grounds to appeal this decision," a statement on the manufacturer's website said, again citing its relatively small share of pills on market, and its "compliance with federal and state laws," among other points.

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Willetts is education and city reporter for the Enid News & Eagle.
Have a question about this story? Do you see something we missed? Do you have a story idea for Mitchell? Send an email to mwilletts@enidnews.com.

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