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Johnson & Johnson: Baby Powder to Poppies

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Johnson & Johnson is one of the largest and most vastly recognizable companies in America. Their products, as well as those of their over 200 subsidiary companies, can be found in nearly every home in the United States. Whereas the Johnson & Johnson name in the past was associated closely with Baby Powder and Band-Aids, in recent months the company has made headlines due to their intimate relationship with the opioid crisis. As the number of court cases surrounding this epidemic continue to rise, so does the scrutiny of the company’s business ethics. The opioid crisis, potential involvement and ethical slips of Johnson & Johnson, as well as a applicable ethical framework for consideration are discussed.

Johnson & Johnson is perhaps one of the most well-known companies in America. Their 108 product lines and over 230 subsidiary companies create products that span the entire spectrum of life from baby powder to contact lenses that darken when exposed to sunlight (Kohan, 2019). This homegrown company began as a triad of brothers in rural New Jersey in the 1880’s who recognized a need for sterile surgical dressings (Johnson & Johnson, 2019). Fast forward about 130 years and now Johnson & Johnson has products in nearly every home in America as well as a seat on the Fortune 500 list as one of top 50 largest corporations in the United States (Kohan, 2019). For a multitude of years, the company also held the esteemed title as one of the “most respected companies in the world” (Burdette, 2019). However, recent allegations concerning their involvement in the opioid crisis has threatened to challenge this highly respected, iconic company.

The opioid crisis, as the new epidemic has been named, has established prominence in the media due to its staggering statistics. An estimated 70 American lives are claimed each day as a result of prescription opioids, making opioids the number one cause of death for Americans under the age of 50 (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2019). This astounding number is greater than lives lost to car accidents and by homicide (Center for Disease Control, 2018). Moreover, the cost of this crisis continues to plague the country in other ways as well. For example, the Center for Disease Control estimates that the financial cost of this mishandling and exploitation of opioids to reach $75.8 billion dollars a year (2018). Figures such as these have drawn the attention of the nation, and naturally, lawmakers and news anchors want answers. In the search for the root of this evil, pharmaceutical companies such as Johnson & Johnson have been brought into the spotlight.

Despite the company’s widespread popularity for manufacturing Band-Aids, Johnson & Johnson, and its vast list of subsidiary companies, constitute a very significant portion of the pharmaceutical industry in the United States. In fact, innovators at Johnson & Johnson in the 1990s developed a mutant strain of poppy in effort to meet growing demands for opium derivatives. Following this invention, the company also partnered with several other pharmaceutical companies as a supplier of these opioid ingredients. These discoveries and partnerships created countless jobs across the world, millions of dollars in revenue and increased stock value, and a renewed optimism of relief for individuals burdened with daily pain (Gerszewski, 2019). The future for Johnson & Johnson appeared to be boundless and bright.

With these strategic collaborations, the enterprise was able to firmly secure itself in a position to control the production of over 60% of the opioids in America (Gerszewski, 2019). Considering the opioid market in North America has been estimated to exceed 12.4 billion dollars, this substantial power and market control was astonishing (Grandview Research Industry Analysis, 2019). From a business standpoint, Johnson & Johnson seemed unbeatable. However, with this success came increased publicity, and from that came scrutiny.

As the opioid crisis developed over the past two decades, the finger-pointing from those personally affected and their lawmakers increased. Nearly 50,000 American lives were lost as a result of opioid-related drug overdoses in 2017 alone. On top of that, approximately 1.7 million individuals struggle with an opioid-related substance abuse disorder (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2019). In addition, it is estimated that every 15 minutes, an infant is born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). This syndrome causes painful and costly complications for these newborns as they struggle through the sequalae of consequences of opioid withdrawal (Jilani et al, 2019). Furthermore, this progressively prevalent practice of opioid use has been tied to inflated reported numbers of diseases spread by needles such as Hepatitis C and HIV (National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2019). This is a public issue that has, and will continue to, impact us all as Americans in some fashion. With effects as widespread as these, it is no surprise that the companies behind these prescriptions and their ingredients have come into question.

Johnson & Johnson’s business practices have come under investigation due to their apparent lack in transparency and less-than-truthful marketing and advertisement practices. According to documents presented in court cases against the company, Johnson & Johnson presented dishonest information to prescribers and patients regarding the efficacy of their products. Additionally, data concerning abuse and addiction rates of opioid containing products was not conveyed in full (Fortier & Mann, 2019). Email communication between Johnson & Johnson managers and executives dating back to 2001 show that the company was aware of the potential drawbacks and risk of addiction, yet this information was withheld from the public. In fact, during meetings between members of the sales team and healthcare professionals, the benefits of these medications were routinely embellished while the adverse effects were simultaneously minimized (Lurie, 2019). By employing these marketing and advertising schemes, Johnson & Johnson continued to grow their pharmaceutical empire but at a great cost.

Lawmakers, and the affected individuals that they represent, have called into question Johnson & Johnson’s ethics as the court case has rambled on. By simply conducting operations in the social and natural settings that we share as humans rather than in an isolated silo, businesses must be held accountable just as individuals are. Corporations must also be held responsible for their actions due to their relationship with stakeholders and the community itself (Salehi, Saeidinia, & Aghaei, 2012). This idea and focus on ethics and socially responsible decision making within the business and research realm has been on-the-rise since the 1980s. Ethics often “asks the difficult questions” and does not always have a clear answer. However, utilizing fundamental ethical principles as an outline for decision making can assist in creating balanced solutions (LaFollette, 2013). Three generally accepted ethical principles under which companies are expected to function come to mind when discussing this case: beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice.

Beneficence can be described as the obligation to bring about good from one’s actions. On a similar note, nonmaleficence is defined as the responsibility to do no harm. Justice, perhaps the most commonly broadcasted ethical principle, is the commitment to treat people with fairness and equality (Flite & Harman, 2013). Together, this trio of principles serves as a scaffolding on which many ethical frameworks for decision making have been constructed. Three broad illustrations of ethical frameworks are the consequentialist framework, which focused on the future and those impacted, the duty framework, which focuses on callings and responsibilities, and the virtue framework, which is focused on desired character traits. While none of these frameworks offer seamless solutions, each have strengths and weaknesses. These differences can be used to guide leaders into choosing appropriate frameworks in which to structure decision making (Bonde & Firenze, 2013).

In this specific case, Johnson & Johnson was handed what would turn out to be one of the most momentous business expansions and income-generating strategies in the field of pharmaceuticals. From a purely business standpoint, it would be extremely difficult, and imaginably unpopular within the company, to turn away from an opportunity to gain substantial control over an industry and rapidly increase both supply and demand of a product. However, when the idea is observed from a more holistic standpoint under the principles of beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice, the aura of the idea is altered. By creating the mutant strain of poppy, partnering with other pharmaceutical companies, and disseminating dishonest information regarding potential problems and shortcomings of the opioid medications, Johnson & Johnson seemed to have blatantly disregarded all three ethical principles discussed.

With these actions, the company failed their social responsibility to society. As a result, the company is now being faced with billions of dollars in fines and court cases, severe damage to their reputation, and last but not least, the stigma that they are in some way connected to the lives impacted and those lost to the opioid crisis (Fortier & Mann, 2019). Though the outcomes of any decision cannot be precisely determined prior to making a judgement call, companies must evaluate plans against some sort of ethical framework.

I believe that there is a significant chance that the opioid crisis would be in a different place today had Johnson & Johnson examined their marketing and advertising tactics against the ideas of beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice in the 1990s when the idea of widespread use of opioids was in its beginning stages. For example, leaders in the company could have approached their practices with a series of questions such as: Are we doing a service to our patients by increasing the supply and rate of prescription of these opioid containing drugs? Are we providing patients with a quality, effective product with minimal risk for severe side effects? Are we ensuring that patients and their medical providers are aware of both potential benefits and drawbacks of these medications from a fair and unbiased perspective? Moreover, if Johnson & Johnson had employed the use of the consequentialist framework with a more forward-thinking mindset aimed at producing the most good, their decisions surrounding opioid disbursement may have been altered (Bonde & Firenze, 2013).

It is evident that Johnson & Johnson is not the only party to be blamed in this horrifying epidemic. The consumers, prescribing providers, and retailers as well as governmental agencies such as the FDA and DEA have all had a part to play in this unfolding drama. However, as one of the most trusted companies in America, it is both shocking and disappointing that Johnson & Johnson seemed to place the needs of their financial statements above their duty to protect those in the communities they serve. With this in mind and the looming pressure from lawsuits, the actions that the company takes next will help to shape the future of the company in both a social and financial context.

Johnson & Johnson now faces an opportunity to help curtail the consequences of their previous actions as well as assist in diminishing the burden on those already affected. By taking another look at their marketing and advertising strategies in the context of the ethical principles discussed previously, Johnson & Johnson has a chance to be more transparent and provide providers and their patients with accurate and truthful information regarding their prescriptions and potential outcomes. In doing so, the company works to both “do good” and “do no harm” for the general public, thus satisfying the principles of beneficence and nonmaleficence. Additionally, in some states, Johnson & Johnson has already settled in the judiciary system and committed to providing funding to support treatment centers delivering hope and encouragement for those recovering from opioid addiction. These reparations would work as a start towards justice for the stakeholders involved.

Ethics, like most leadership and management decisions, does not have a one-size-fits-all solution. Ethical business practice involves a multitude of levels of thought and decisions. To start, research suggests developing extensive awareness of the situation and any bias that may be in play, incorporating ethical principles, considering alternatives, and finally acting on the decision and evaluating the outcomes (Greenwood & Freeman, 2017).

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