News Brief: Oklahoma Opioid Ruling, Iran Sanctions, Newark's Water

Aug 27, 2019
Originally published on August 27, 2019 6:43 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

In Oklahoma, a judge said yesterday that drugmaker Johnson & Johnson is partly responsible for that state's opioid crisis.

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THAD BALKMAN: Defendants caused an opioid crisis that is evidenced by increased rates of addiction, overdose deaths and neonatal abstinence syndrome in Oklahoma.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So that was state judge Thad Balkman there, issuing the first court ruling in a wave of opioid-related lawsuits against the drug industry. Balkman ruled that Johnson & Johnson should pay more than $570 million to help ease Oklahoma's opioid addiction crisis. Now, we should say, the state had asked for a whole lot more from the company - as much as $17 billion.

KING: Jackie Fortier is a health reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma. She was in the courtroom yesterday when that decision came down. Good morning, Jackie.

JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So why did the judge rule against Johnson & Johnson? What did he say?

FORTIER: Well, the judge blamed Johnson & Johnson's misleading marketing and promotion of opioids and said that those actions compromised the health and safety of thousands of Oklahomans. And that's what this case was about; it was about public nuisance. As you heard earlier, he mentioned things like the number of opioid deaths in Oklahoma as evidence of Johnson & Johnson's impact. And to combat those sort of issues, the judge awarded the states more than half a billion dollars.

KING: Yeah, $572 million is certainly a lot of money, but it is way less than the $17 billion the state of Oklahoma wanted. How did the attorney general who is prosecuting the case react to that award?

FORTIER: Well, the judge said in his decision that the state had only proved a year of the cost of fighting the epidemic, which is why he awarded, like you said, a little over $570 million. And the state had been asking for 30 years' worth of abatement. In his press conference after the verdict, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter was pretty optimistic. He even encouraged other states to sue opioid drugmakers under the same claim.

KING: Interesting. OK, so you have other states suing; you have other cities suing, in fact. What does this judgment signal for those cases, which - many of which are set to happen this year or next year?

FORTIER: Right. I mean, it sends the signal that those municipalities that are suing, that they really have a case. Those drug companies and distributors may be more willing to settle now that they've seen that they could potentially have to pay over half a billion dollars, like Johnson & Johnson is now.

Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, settled with Oklahoma for $270 million before the trial - they were initially one of the defendants - which is a much smaller amount of money than Johnson & Johnson may now be on the hook for, not just in Oklahoma but in all the other states.

KING: Yeah, the interesting thing about Johnson & Johnson was always that it didn't settle, that it dug in and said, we're not guilty. And after the verdict yesterday, the company said it will appeal. What else did they say about that decision?

FORTIER: Sabrina Strong, a trial lawyer for Johnson & Johnson, said during a press conference yesterday that the state and that the opioid company would - may take about - I'm sorry. Sabrina Strong, who's a lawyer for Johnson & Johnson, said that, you know, the drugs had taken a long time to launch and monitor, and really by licensing doctors and pharmacists, they had their own oversight responsibility. So she kind of blamed the opioid crisis on illicit drugs, not really prescription drugs.

KING: Jackie Fortier is a health reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma. Thanks, Jackie.

FORTIER: Thanks.

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KING: All right. French President Emmanuel Macron said something that surprised a lot of people when the G-7 summit ended yesterday.

GREENE: Yeah, Macron said he is working to broker a summit between President Trump and Iran's President Hassan Rouhani. This came as a surprise because tensions, of course, have flared between the U.S. and Iran following the U.S. withdrawal last year from the big nuclear deal. Since then, the Trump administration has imposed economic sanctions on Iran to try and get them back to the negotiating table. Despite those tensions, though, President Trump yesterday did signal the possibility of a meeting with Rouhani.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think he's going to want to meet. I think Iran wants to get this situation straightened out. Now, is that based on fact or based on gut? That's based on gut. But they want to get this situation straightened out.

GREENE: But this morning in Iran, Rouhani said he is not interested in any kind of photo-op and would meet on one condition - U.S. sanctions must be lifted.

KING: NPR's Michele Kelemen has been following this story. She's on the line. Good morning, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So President Trump has been taking a really hard line on Iran. How did this talk of a summit, which would be historic, even get started?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, Macron, the French president, has been trying to salvage this nuclear deal and keep the Iranian nuclear program in check. He and a lot of other Europeans are really worried that the Trump administration's approach, this maximum pressure campaign and sanctions, is not only raising tensions in the region but could drag everyone into a conflict.

Now, Trump in fact has always said that he is open to talks and doesn't want war, so Macron is kind of testing that notion, talking directly to him, going around the administration hard-liners who are advocating for regime change in Iran.

KING: I see. Do I have right that a U.S. president and an Iranian president have not met in 40 years, since 1979?

KELEMEN: Yeah, that's right. And, you know, even when the Obama administration was negotiating with Iran, President Hassan Rouhani didn't even shake Obama's hand at the United Nations.

KING: Wow.

KELEMEN: You know, that was - again, when the two sides were actually negotiating that nuclear deal, Rouhani only agreed to a phone call with Obama, which was in itself historic, since there's really been no contact since the revolution, as you said.

KING: OK, so this would be a really big deal. Do we have any sense of when it might happen and what might be on the table?

KELEMEN: Well, when it could happen is at the U.N. General Assembly. But as I mentioned, you know, Rouhani, you know, didn't have meetings in the past, and he didn't agree to meet Trump in the past, even though Trump has tried that there. There would be plenty to talk about if they do. Iran's been ramping up its nuclear program, going beyond the limits set out in the nuclear deal.

And so what Macron wants to do is, you know, get the two sides back to the negotiating table, ease up on sanctions to get Iran back into compliance and then work through all the other problems that the U.S. has with the agreement. Trump seemed open to that. Though his administration says it will keep up the sanctions, he said he and Macron are talking about things like short-term credits to get Iran through a difficult economic period, credits backed up by oil. And then Trump also said that, you know, he has confidence that the Iranians want to get something done and want to come talk to him about - because the economy is suffering.

KING: Michele, is there anyone who would not like this summit to happen?

KELEMEN: Yeah, well, the Saudis would be worried about any diplomatic overture with their main rival in the region. Israel has been bombing Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. They would be concerned. And Trump would likely get pushback from his own advisers, who have been Iranian hard-liners for a long time.

KING: NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thanks so much, Michele.

KELEMEN: Sure thing.

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KING: All right. In Newark, N.J., this was the sound last night.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Clean water.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When do we need it?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Now.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Clean water.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: When do we need it?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Now.

GREENE: Asking for clean water. Those demonstrators were gathered in Newark yesterday to protest elevated lead levels in the city's drinking water. This problem, we should say, has been going on there for years. And recently, many Newark residents have been relying on bottled water as city leaders are struggling to address this crisis. Yesterday's protests happened against the backdrop of MTV's Video Music Awards, which were held at Newark's Prudential Center. And that did raise questions about what exactly the city is prioritizing.

KING: Gwynne Hogan of New York Public Radio was there. She's on the line now. Hi, Gwynne.

GWYNNE HOGAN, BYLINE: Hi. How's it going?

KING: Good. So an interesting time and place for protesters to gather. Why did they go to the VMA awards?

HOGAN: Yeah, I think for two reasons. Activists that I spoke to who organized this event said, on the one hand, there are people from all over the country who are here to see it, as well as national and international celebrities that are in their city. And on the other hand, there were city officials attending this event. And, you know, as one woman I put it - said, how - I don't understand how you can party while our children are being poisoned with lead.

KING: Wow. All right, so what else did you see last night?

HOGAN: So it started out a little bit tense. The protesters had started at a train station nearby and tried to push past some lines of security to get closer to the Prudential Center. And there was a line of police officers. There was a line of police officers on horses that tried to careen the crowd away.

And it was intense at the beginning, but then the protesters kind of retreated and went into a plaza, where there were lines of people waiting to get into the Prudential Center. And they basically stood there and made their pitch to these people, many of whom had never heard about what was happening in Newark.

KING: Wow. You know, as David mentioned, this water crisis isn't new; it's been going on for a while. What happened to bring it to the forefront, to draw attention?

HOGAN: Yeah, it has been - the city has had elevated levels of lead in some of its water for several years now. But earlier this month, the federal government told Newark it had to begin giving bottled water to residents. And that happened because the city had tested some of - these water filters had been given out. These filters were supposed to reduce lead in the water, and many residents were using them for drinking and cooking, but backup tests of just a few of them found that they weren't working.

So that's what sort of set this whole thing in motion - the city beginning to try to distribute bottled water out of several distribution sites. And now they're trying to figure out basically what happened with these filters, and we'll know more about that in the coming weeks.

KING: Aside from distributing bottled water, what else is the city doing to address this?

HOGAN: Right. Well, there was a big announcement made yesterday earlier in the day. The city essentially has secured a bond - well, not yet. It's in the process of securing a bond from Essex County, where it's located, that would allow it to fast-track a lot of these repairs - $120 million - and that would go to replacing all of the lead service lines. And that would - those are the pipes that attach private homes to the city's water mains - and do that in under three years.

So this is a big deal. But a lot of the activists said, hey, I have been so misled by this administration at this point that it's hard for me to trust that you're going to get that done.

KING: OK. And just quickly - are Newark residents in the meantime just relying on bottled water?

HOGAN: That's right. That's what they're going to have to do until they figure out what happened with the filters.

KING: Reporter Gwynne Hogan from New York Public Radio. Gwynne, thanks so much.

HOGAN: Thank you. Have a good day.

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