Commentary

Johnson & Johnson Accused Of Cynical Brainwashing As Opioid Trial Opens

In what attorney general Mike Hunter called the “worst man-made public health crisis in history,” the state of Oklahoma yesterday laid out its arguments against Johnson & Johnson for being the “kingpin” in the opioid crises that has claimed so many lives across the U.S.

“Johnson & Johnson, the drug giant best known for its baby products, has been accused of ‘a cynical, deceitful multimillion-dollar brainwashing campaign’ to drive up sales of its powerful painkillers,” Chris McGreal writes for the Guardian.

“Calling the trial a ‘day of reckoning’ for the company, Hunter accused the company of ‘destroying lives and families,’” McGreal adds.

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“How did it happen?” Hunter asked. “Greed.”

“The state said that Johnson & Johnson along with Purdue Pharma -- which produces the prescription painkiller OxyContin -- and Israel-based Teva Pharmaceuticals had pushed doctors to prescribe more opioids in the 1990s by using misleading marketing,” the BBC reports. “State lawyer Brad Beckworth said Johnson & Johnson did so by marketing opioids as ‘safe and effective for everyday pain’ but downplayed addictive qualities and thus helped to create a drug oversupply.” 

Purdue settled for $270 million in March; Teva settled for $85 million on Sunday.

“J&J pushed back hard, arguing that the state itself looked the other way as its own drug review board and prescription monitoring program for years neglected to swoop down on sources of diverted opioids. In addition, it said, Oklahoma could not tie any death directly to the company’s products -- Duragesic, a fentanyl patch, and Nucynta, an opioid pill it no longer makes,” Jan Hoffman writes for the New York Times.

“‘You hear about pill mills,’ said Larry D. Ottaway, the lead counsel for a J & J subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceuticals. ‘You don’t hear about patch mills,’” Hoffman adds.

“If you oversupply, people will die,” Brad Beckworth, a lawyer for Oklahoma, repeatedly told judge Thad Balkman in the jury-less trial in Norman, Okla. He also offered emails from Johnson & Johnson sales reps that showed the pressure tactics the company used to get doctors to prescribe Johnson & Johnson’s drugs, Xuan Thai writes for NBC News. 

The trial is being live-streamed by ABC affiliate KOKO and elsewhere. It could last as long as two months.

‘Most of the litigation against opioid makers and distributors — involving states, cities, counties and tribes -- is wrapped up in a single massive lawsuit,” reports Paul Demko for Politico. U.S. District Court Judge Dan Polster, who is overseeing that case, “has been pushing for a massive settlement before the first of those cases go to trial in the fall.”

“The larger federal litigation overseen by Polster involves well over 1,000 lawsuits from governments and groups who argue they’re owed tens of billions of dollars in damages for the fallout from the addiction crisis. Unlike the Oklahoma trial, those cases will involve Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, which more than any company has been blamed for flooding the country with painkillers,” Demko adds.

“Oklahoma slimmed down its case in the run-up to trial, leaving as its sole claim that Johnson & Johnson created a ‘public nuisance’ through its drug marketing. If … Balkman rules in the state’s favor, it can seek to recoup the cost to abate the nuisance but not ask for damages above and beyond that. The state has estimated abatement costs at $12.7 billion to $17.5 billion, which Johnson & Johnson calls excessive,” Sara Randazzo writes for the Wall Street Journal.

“If the company succeeds, I feel like that will then give a lot of weight to the drug makers who say, ‘okay, maybe we should fight these things and not settle because there's a chance.’ And so it definitely will be used a bit as a bellwether even though in other ways it's very much one state, one particular set of claims…’” Randazzo tells Mary Louise Kelly in an interview for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

Teva “chose to settle because it thought there ‘was a bad set-up in Oklahoma, a traditionally plaintiff-friendly jurisdiction,’ Bernstein analyst Ronny Gal wrote in a note to clients on Tuesday,” reports Eric Sagonowsky for FiercePharma.

“‘Given the national media attention, Teva wanted to avoid this being their first verdict in opioid litigation,’ Gal added. ‘They believe odds will be better in other, more balanced jurisdictions,’” Sagonowsky adds.

For his part, Oklahoma DA Hunter said: “The fact that I am a Republican and a conservative does not mean I have to turn a blind eye when corporations do bad things to people,” Fox 23’s Tiffany Alaniz tweets.

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