Three major drug distributors and Johnson & Johnson are on the verge of paying out to cover thousands of lawsuits over the toll of opioids, a crisis that killed nearly 500,000 in the US from 1999 to 2019.

Tens of thousands of Americans have died due to medical drug overdose in the last few decades.
Tens of thousands of Americans have died due to medical drug overdose in the last few decades. (AP)

The three biggest US drug distribution companies and the drugmaker Johnson & Johnson are on the verge of a $26 billion settlement covering thousands of lawsuits over the toll of opioids across America. 

As a precursor to the bigger deal, New York reached an agreement on Tuesday with the distribution companies AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson to settle an ongoing trial in the state, AP reported. 

That deal alone would generate more than $1 billion to abate the damage done by opioids there. The trial is expected to continue, but the settlement leaves only three drug manufacturers as defendants.

READ MORE: OxyContin maker Purdue agrees to guilty plea 

“Today, we’re holding them accountable delivering more than $1 billion more into New York communities ravaged by opioids for treatment, recovery, and prevention efforts," New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement.

An Associated Press analysis of federal distribution data found that enough prescription opioids were shipped in 2012 for every person in the US to have a 20-day supply.

And opioids – including both prescription drugs and illegal ones like heroin and illicitly produced fentanyl – have been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the US since 2000.

Cardinal Health declined to comment, and the other distribution companies did not respond to requests for comment.

But Johnson and Johnson reiterated in a statement that it's prepared to contribute up to $5 billion to the national settlement. 

The company settled with New York last month just before the trial there started. 

The distribution companies face thousands of similar legal claims from state and local governments across the country and have long been trying to settle them all.

The New York deal would become a part of a national agreement if one can be struck this year.

The state and local governments say distribution companies did not have proper controls to flag or halt shipments to pharmacies that received outsized shares of powerful and addictive prescription painkillers. 

The companies have maintained that they were filling orders of legal drugs placed by doctors — so they shouldn't shoulder blame for the nation's addiction and overdose crisis.

Time to fix the crisis 

Under the New York settlement, the three companies would provide more than $1 billion to be used to abate the epidemic in the state. The money would be delivered in 18 annual payments, with the first one arriving this year.

The companies would also establish a national clearinghouse of data on opioid distribution, and the data would be monitored by an independent body. Johnson & Johnson would also agree not to produce any opioids for the next 10 years.

Including the New York case, there are currently three trials across the US of government entities' claims that companies should be held liable for the opioid crisis. 

Other cases are queued up to start. The only one of its kind to reach a verdict so far was two years ago in Oklahoma. There, a judge ordered Johnson & Johnson, the only company not to settle before that trial, to pay $465 million. The company is appealing the judgement.

The New York case is the broadest one to go to trial so far — and the first with a jury deciding the case rather than only a judge.

Johnson & Johnson settled for $230 million just before the case started. The remaining defendants are Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Endo International and AbbVie, Inc.

With so many cases approaching trial, there's been a flurry of proposed or realised settlements over opioids. 

OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma declared bankruptcy as part of its effort to settle cases. It is proposing a reorganisation that would use all future profits to fight the epidemic as part of a deal the company values at about $10 billion over time. 

Source: AP