Purdue Pharma is named the main defendant in multiple city, state and local lawsuits against the pharmaceutical companies that played a part in the current opioid crisis. The suits claim the drug maker’s aggressive marketing of its opioid painkiller OxyContin began the crisis more than two decades ago. News media has covered the crisis extensively, including John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight” on HBO, whose Opioids II program focused specifically on the Sackler Family who owns and runs Purdue Pharma.
In March 2019, Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family agreed to pay $270 million in a settlement deal with Oklahoma to help offset the growing cost of the opioid epidemic. Oklahoma’s lawsuit would have been the first to go to court.
Now, Oklahoma is taking aim at Johnson & Johnson with a multibillion-dollar lawsuit that questions J&J’s marketing strategy. The state claims the drug manufacturer misrepresented the risk of opioid addiction to doctors and manipulated medical research resulting in the epidemic that took 400,000 lives and cost the nation trillions of dollars to combat.
“I think it’s fair to characterize Johnson & Johnson as a kingpin in our opioid crisis.” -Dr. Andrew Kolodny, expert witness.
According to the state’s complaint, J&J noticed Purdue Pharma’s explosion in sales for OxyContin in the mid-1990s and quickly realized the profit potential. They created a false narrative of an epidemic of untreated pain, naming their fentanyl patch, Duragesic, as the solution. By claiming the patch had a low risk of addiction, they were able to open up the market for the opioid painkiller beyond treating cancer patients in severe pain.
J&J hired a marketing firm who encouraged sales reps to search out doctors prescribing opioids regularly and encourage them to switch their patients from a lower strength opioid to J&J’s powerful Duragesic. Sales surged past $1 billion a year.
Dr. Russell Portenoy, advisor turned whistleblower, provided the most damaging testimony against J&J. Portenoy was a paid advocate for J&J, Purdue and other opioid manufactures. He told courts that his research was distorted as J&J selectively quoted his results and omitted information about the dangers of narcotics.
Johnson & Johnson is the world’s largest health care company and tops the list of most powerful pharmaceutical corporations. Other notable suits against J&J includes:
- Asbestos in baby power,
- Risperdal, antipsychotic drug causing young men to grow female-like breasts,
- Transvaginal mesh,
- Xarelto blood thinner causing severe bleeding, and
- DePuy hip replacements
Currently set to be the first opioid suit to go to trial, the case is being watched closely to see if courts will hold a pharmaceutical company responsible for the opioid crisis it helped create. Especially interested in the outcome are opioid makers, drug distributors and pharmacy chains also named as defendants in thousands of other cases across the country.
In the action against J&J, Oklahoma attorney general, Mike Hunter, exposes how the entire opioid pharmaceutical industry worked together pooling their enormous resources to influence medical policy and doctor prescribing.
“If the judge decides to rule that Johnson & Johnson is not liable in Oklahoma because of the facts in Oklahoma, then I think they’re going to have to replicate that result in 49 other states and in at least 1,900 other governmental entity cases. If, on the other hand, the judge does find liability against Johnson & Johnson, despite the fact that they claim their market share was so small, you would think that that would have reverberations across the industry.” – Paul Farrell, Esq., a lead lawyer in the combined 2,000 case litigation.
Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, settles opioids lawsuit in Oklahoma, Stat News, March 26, 2019
Johnson & Johnson faces multibillion opioids lawsuit that could upend big pharma, The Guardian, June 23, 2019