News Brief: G-7 Summit, Financial Markets, Oklahoma Opioid Lawsuit
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It was a weekend of, I'd say, surprises, some confusion, a lot of mixed signals as world leaders were gathered at the G-7 summit.
NOEL KING, HOST:
That's right. And this annual gathering is usually a highly orchestrated event. Leaders from the world's seven most advanced economies get together. They hold bilateral meetings. Then they usually sign a joint agreement. But this year, there were lots of surprises. First, Iran's foreign minister dropped by unannounced. Then this morning, President Trump announced that China is ready to make a deal on trade. And then there are fires raging across the Amazon. So the G-7, of course, is going to be talking about climate change. So this meeting is usually about unity, but this year, it's really served to highlight divisions in the western world.
GREENE: And let's talk about what happened with NPR's Frank Langfitt, who's on the line from the seaside town of Biarritz, France, where the summit is being held. Hi there, Frank.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey. Good morning, David.
GREENE: All right. So speaking of things that were not announced, President Trump came out earlier than expected to speak this morning and, it sounds like, tried to clarify his thoughts on China and trade right now or not clarify. What happened?
LANGFITT: I think clarify. I think that what happened was Vice Premier Liu He of China said that China is willing to address trade disputes with the U.S. through negotiations. And President Trump seized on this and said he had great respect for the fact that - he says he interprets this means they're calling and wanting to make a deal - and had nice words to say about President Xi. I think there are a couple ways to look at this. First of all, this has been a trade war that's been raging for a very long time...
LANGFITT: ...Seeming to really spiral in just the last - just the last few days, certainly. And we'll have to see where it goes from here, how far they can get with this. I think that if there's something to these words, certainly, other leaders here will be happy to hear it, because they're very concerned about the impact of the trade war on their economies in Europe and elsewhere, as there's concern about recession in different parts of the world right now.
GREENE: Yeah. Concern in the markets, as well. And we're going to be talking more about that...
GREENE: ...But I want - Frank, this summit was taking place at a moment when much of the Amazon is burning. And I know President Macron of France, who's the host, wanted to put a lot of emphasis on that. What action, if any, came out of the summit when it comes to those fires in Brazil?
LANGFITT: Well, we don't know yet. They're actually meeting on this very issue. And Macron says they're close to an agreement on providing technical and financial assistance to dealing with the fires. The United Kingdom prime minister, Boris Johnson, has already said they'll pay more than $10 million for reforestation. But the G-7 is also divided over whether to use how much - or how much economic leverage they should use against some of these South American countries that they don't feel is doing enough. And so we're going to have to see later today if an agreement comes out and what they can agree on. But certainly, it's a really big issue. And I think people around the world would like to see these big Western leaders, big economies come up with something.
GREENE: Then, of course, you had Macron inviting Iran's foreign minister...
LANGFITT: Yes (laughter).
GREENE: ...To which - at a moment when President Trump has been trying to take a very harsh policy towards Iran. That must have been interesting.
LANGFITT: Yeah, it was. I mean, it was - literally, (laughter) the plane just arrived, you know, just not far from the press center here. And people said, oh, the Iranians are here, who are obviously not members of the G-7.
LANGFITT: It was interesting this morning, though. You know, sometimes, President Trump reacts very angrily at these events. He doesn't like multilateral events. He sometimes - he will rage against people at NATO. He left here last year - left the G-7 last year in a bit of a huff. This time around, he actually said this morning that he was fine with this. It didn't bother him. He just said, I knew they were coming. It's too soon to meet. So his reaction so far to the Iranians showing up as a bit of a surprise has been quite, you know, moderate by his standards. And so hopefully, we'll have a smooth rest of the day here as this summit wraps up.
GREENE: NPR's Frank Langfitt reporting on the G-7 summit in France. Frank, thanks so much.
LANGFITT: Happy to do it, David.
GREENE: And let's talk more about China now. I mean, there have been mixed signals and also a lot of questions about the U.S.-China relationship looming large over the summit.
KING: Yeah. It's still not totally clear what President Trump is doing. Right before the summit, he announced new tariffs on Chinese imports in retaliation for China taxing U.S. products. But then during this summit over the weekend, Trump suggested he was having second thoughts about doing that. And then just this morning, President Trump said China is ready to make a deal. So as a result of all this uncertainty, the markets have taken a hit over the past couple of weeks. But this morning after that announcement, market futures are up.
GREENE: NPR's Scott Horsley has been following all of the market's ups and downs and joins us. Hi there, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: OK, so wild few days. As we just heard, President Trump comes out and says that there might be some kind of deal being worked out with China. What are we looking for in the markets as the week begins here?
HORSLEY: Investors like the sound of that - that China might be coming back to the bargaining table. Now, of course, China and the U.S. were already scheduled to have more negotiations next month. But this suggests maybe that that'll happen sooner rather than later. And that did send the futures markets trending upward. Until that news from the president this morning, the futures markets had been signaling a further slide for stocks this morning.
Remember, on Friday, the Dow lost more than 2 1/3 percent. The S&P 500 lost more than 2 1/2 percent. And it was after those big losses that the president came out and announced another ratcheting up of tariff rates. It's possible, with this announcement of resumption of negotiations, those higher tariffs will be postponed. That's happened before, where the president has announced a new import tax and then backtracked before it takes effect. Trump did say over the weekend that he was having second thoughts about the trade war, although (laughter) the White House then came out and said, well, his second thought was maybe the tariffs should be even higher.
GREENE: Right, clarifying the second thoughts.
GREENE: So, I mean, we've been talking a lot about the U.S. relationship with China when it comes to trade. But it sounds like that's not the only country that's been kind of in the focus at the summit.
HORSLEY: Right. The U.S. announced an agreement, in principle, on a new trade deal with Japan. Now, in principle - there's a big qualifier. The details still have to be nailed down. But the U.S. and Japan hope to have an agreement finalized by late September, when both President Trump and the Japanese prime minister are due to be in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said over the weekend that a trade pact would be good for American farmers and ranchers.
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ROBERT LIGHTHIZER: Japan is by far our biggest beef market. We sell over $2 billion worth of beef to Japan. And this will allow us to do so with lower tariffs and to compete more effectively with people across the board, particularly the TPP countries and Europe.
HORSLEY: TPP countries there refers to the countries in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that big Asia-Pacific trade deal that the president pulled the U.S. out of on one of his first days in office. The other 11 countries in the TPP went ahead with that deal. So beef producers in Australia and New Zealand, for example, have been enjoying lower tariffs in Japan while the U.S. has not. As a result, this deal would reclaim some of the ground that the U.S. lost when Trump pulled out of the TPP.
GREENE: All right. NPR's Scott Horsley talking to us about how trade came up at the G-7 summit in France. Scott, thanks.
HORSLEY: Good to be with you, David.
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GREENE: All right. We're going to turn now to Oklahoma, where a judge is expected to hand down a big decision today that could help determine how much U.S. pharmaceutical companies have to take responsibility for our country's opioid crisis.
KING: Right. So the deal is that Oklahoma filed a $17 billion lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson. And this afternoon, a judge is going to deliver a decision. Now, many state and local governments have sued the drug industry over its aggressive marketing of painkiller, so a lot of people are going to be watching this decision really carefully.
GREENE: And one person watching it closely is Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio, who has been covering the opioid litigation for NPR. He joins us on the line. Hi, Brian.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, David.
GREENE: So Johnson & Johnson, I mean, is, like, a company that many of us know so well. It's just a name brand American company selling everything from baby powder to Neutrogena skin products. How did this company wind up right in the middle of the opioid scandal?
MANN: Yeah. Oklahoma's attorney general, Mike Hunter, gave his answer to that question, David, during opening statements in this trial. Here's what he had to say.
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MIKE HUNTER: How did this happen? At the end of the day, Your Honor, I had a short, one-word answer - greed.
MANN: Greed, he says there. Hunter's team argued in court that Johnson & Johnson sold prescription painkillers while downplaying or hiding the risks contributing to this deadly addiction epidemic. Hunter actually called the company a drug kingpin. So now Oklahoma wants Johnson & Johnson to pay to help clean up the mess.
GREENE: Well, there were other companies involved, right? I mean, Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceutical - they settled with Oklahoma before this trial even began. Johnson & Johnson decided they were going to dig in and fight. So what has been Johnson & Johnson's argument? What's been their defense?
MANN: Yeah. Johnson & Johnson basically said they're being picked on in Oklahoma because they have really deep pockets. They said they didn't actually sell that many opioid medications in the state compared with other drug companies. Another interesting thing, David - they pointed out that these medications are FDA approved, highly regulated and prescribed by doctors. The government knew all along, year after year, exactly how many of these pain pills were being sold.
GREENE: So this is just one case, but it's really not just one case because you've got hundreds of state and local governments filing similar lawsuits against all the big drug industry players. There's another big opioid trial scheduled for October in Ohio. So, I mean, could this decision in Oklahoma today really impact what happens everywhere else?
MANN: Yeah. This is being watched for just that reason. So this wave of lawsuits, first, I would say, has caused the drug industry a lot of pain already in the form of deep harm to their reputations. A ton of information has come out about these companies and their sales practices pushing these drugs, some of it pretty unsavory. But, you know, bad press and public outrage don't always equal solid legal arguments. And that's what we're going to learn today. Will these cases actually hold up in court? Will Judge Balkman, the guy there in Oklahoma - will he agree that Johnson & Johnson violated the law and make them pay on the scale that Oklahoma is claiming - more than $17 billion?
If Oklahoma wins, the drug industry is going to get a clear signal that its liability in this national opioid epidemic could just be massive. I mean, remember, more than 218,000 Americans have died from prescription drug overdoses. But if Johnson & Johnson prevails, if the dollar amounts awarded are small, it could mean a lot of these lawsuits just fizzling out.
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GREENE: Wow. You do set it up in a way that makes us all want to be watching very closely to see what happens in Oklahoma today. NPR's Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio. He covers opioid litigation for NPR. Brian, thanks so much.
MANN: Thanks so much.
GREENE: And we do just want to note here the former chairman of Johnson & Johnson founded the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is a sponsor of NPR.
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