Oklahoma, Johnson & Johnson face off in first opioid crisis trial

Oklahoma accuses drugmakers of carrying out deceptive marketing campaigns that downplayed the addictive risks of opioids

    Johnson & Johnson manufacturing plant is pictured [File: Zeba Siddiqui/Reuters]
    Johnson & Johnson manufacturing plant is pictured [File: Zeba Siddiqui/Reuters]

    The United States's first state trial against drugmakers blamed for contributing to the opioid crisis began in Oklahoma on Tuesday. 

    Opening arguments started with Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter saying powerful painkillers led to the "worst man-made public health crisis" in US history. Drugmakers deny those claims.

    Lawyers for consumer products giant Johnson & Johnson and several subsidiaries are expected to start making their case later on Tuesday. Two other pharmaceutical companies have settled with Oklahoma.

    Tuesday's trial is the first to result from more than 2,000 similar lawsuits against opioid manufacturers nationwide.

    The lawsuits by state and local governments seek to hold J&J and other companies responsible for a drug abuse epidemic that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says led to a record 47,600 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2017.

    Hunter alleges J&J, along with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd, carried out deceptive marketing campaigns that downplayed opioids' addictive risks while overstating their benefits.

    Oklahoma also alleges J&J, which marketed the painkillers Duragesic and Nucynta, was "the kingpin behind this public health emergency," growing and importing the raw materials other drugmakers used for their products. 

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    The state claims the companies' actions created an oversupply of painkillers and a public nuisance that will cost $12.7bn to $17.5bn to remedy.

    Settlements with other companies

    Oklahoma resolved its claims against Purdue Pharma in March for $270m and against Teva on Sunday for $85m, leaving only J&J as a defendant in the nonjury trial before Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman.

    "We believe our evidence is persuasive and compelling with regard to their legal responsibility for thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of addictions in the state," Hunter said.

    Opioid crisis
    Bottles of prescription painkiller OxyContin made by Purdue Pharma LP sit on a shelf at a local pharmacy in Provo, Utah [George Frey/Reuters]

    In a statement, Teva said the settlement "does not establish any wrongdoing on the part of the company". 

    It added, "Teva has not contributed to the abuse of opioids in Oklahoma in any way." 

    J&J also denies wrongdoing, arguing that its marketing efforts were proper and that the state cannot prove it caused the opioid epidemic given the role doctors, patients, pharmacists and drug dealers played. 

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    "We acted responsibly in providing FDA-approved pain medications, and we are ready for trial," J&J said in a statement on Sunday.

    But J&J also said it was open to an "an appropriate resolution" that would avoid the expense and uncertainty of a trial.

    The case is being closely watched by plaintiffs in other opioid lawsuits, particularly the 1,850 cases consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio, who has been pushing for a settlement agreement before an October trial.

    Some plaintiffs' lawyers have compared the opioid cases to litigation by states against the tobacco industry that led to a $24bn settlement in 1998.

    SOURCE: Reuters news agency