According to a lawsuit by the State of Oklahoma, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) fueled the state’s opioid crisis with deceptive marketing. The state claims that Johnson & Johnson downplayed the risks of opioids, overstated their benefits, and promoted off-label uses. These directly led to a wave of overdoses and addiction. Nationwide, similar lawsuits brought by states and cities against other opioid manufacturers such as Purdue Pharma have sought to estimate the costs of the opioid epidemic and to hold drug companies accountable for their acts.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter claims Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Unit caused a health crisis under the “public nuisance” theory of law. Traditionally, this legal theory is used to address minor property disputes over harmful odors, bright lights and loud noises. Johnson & Johnson asked the court to dismiss the trial, claiming there was “no support in Oklahoma law” for the claim. On July 8th, District Judge Thad Balkman, however, denied Johnson & Johnson’s motion and ruled that the suit can move forward.

Oklahoma alleges residents were “manipulated” into believing Johnson & Johnson’s opioid drugs were safe to use for long periods of time.  Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of opioid policy research at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University, testified that Johnson & Johnson pressed doctors to prescribe its painkillers even as the potentially fatal addictive threat posed by the drugs became clear over a decade ago.

Prosecutors aim to recover for damages the state has suffered from the marketing which fueled the opioid addiction crisis. Oklahoma is seeking $13 billion in damages from Johnson & Johnson to deal with current and future expenses tied to treatment and prevention of opioid addiction.

According to Saxum Strategic Communications chairman and CEO Renzi Stone testimony, Oklahoma would have to spend nearly $285 million to support a counter marketing campaign that would offset companies’ influence over prescribing these painkillers.

Johnson & Johnson and its Janssen Unit maintain they legally promoted and sold the fentanyl-based Duragesic pain patch and Nucynta opioid painkiller, and should not be held responsible for the wrongdoings of other companies. Previously, Oklahoma reached a $270 million settlement with Oxycontin-maker Purdue Pharma, and an $85 million settlement with Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd.

This case provides a preview of how similar claims may play out in the future. In October, opioid drug makers and distributors go to trial in Cleveland. Cities and counties contend they have spent billions in tax dollars on the societal fallout from opioid-related overdoses and addictions. According to CNN, nearly 2,000 cases have been filed across the country. The Oklahoma case will be a key test of whether a state can hold a pharmaceutical company responsible for the opioid epidemic – and pay for the epidemic’s public costs.

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