The State of Oklahoma is facing off against Johnson & Johnson in court this week as their suit against the firm is put in front of a judge. Attorney General Mike Hunter has argued that the drug manufacturer fueled the state’s “opioid epidemic” with misleading marketing about their opioid-based painkillers – stating that they were “safe and effective for everyday pain”.
In opening remarks for the state, attorney Brad Beckworth argued that J&J downplayed the addiction risks associated with their opioid products. He further alleged that the drug maker pressured doctors to prescribe more opioids, stating this practice led to a stockpile of pharmaceutical painkillers and serious consequences.
“If you have an oversupply, people will die,” Beckworth said.
Johnson & Johnson has asserted it properly advertised its products and denied any wrongdoing. While they have indicated they would be open to “an appropriate resolution” to avoid the expense and uncertainty of court, they are prepared for litigation
“We acted responsibly in providing FDA-approved pain medications, and we are ready for trial,” they said in a statement issued on Sunday.
Vamil Divan, an analyst with Credit Suisse, believes that the drug company’s stake in Oklahoma’s opioid-based products market represented only a very small fraction of all painkillers sold in the Sooner State. Of those J&J products prescribed, most were purchased by patients already taking other opioids.
“Obviously, the opioid epidemic is a major epidemic,” Divan said. “I’m certainly not trying to minimize that. And I don’t think the company is either. But the role that Johnson & Johnson specifically played here seems to be relatively limited.”
This lawsuit is the first of 2,000 cases brought by state, local and tribal governments against pharmaceutical firms and is being closely followed by other plaintiffs with opioid grievances. Perhaps the most notable are the 1,850 court-petitions that have recently been consolidated before an Ohio federal judge. In that case, the plaintiffs and defendants have been strongly urged to reach a settlement agreement prior to the October trial date.
Some plaintiff’s lawyers have drawn comparisons between the opioid suits and those launched against the tobacco industry in the 1990s. In what was to become the largest civil litigation agreement in US history, forty-six states and six jurisdictions successfully argued the need for tobacco marketing restrictions and a $246 billion settlement to help governments recoup “taxpayer money spent for health care costs connected to tobacco-related illness.”
Oklahoma has recently resolved similar opioid claims against the makers of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, after they reached a $270 million settlement in March. Teva Pharmaceuticals followed suit by acquiescing to a $85 million settlement with the state in May.
Hunter pointed to Teva’s settlement as a testament to the efforts of the state’s legal team and their “countless hours and resources preparing for this trial and…dedication and resolve to hold the defendants in this case accountable for the ongoing opioid overdose and addiction epidemic that continues to claim thousands of lives each year.”