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Mega Lawsuit Calls Johnson & Johnson ‘Kingpin’ of Opioid Crisis

Johnson & Johnson Office in North America
Johnson & Johnson Office in North America (Photo: public domain)

“I think it’s fair to characterize Johnson & Johnson as a kingpin in our opioid crisis.”

Johnson & Johnson (J&J), the pharmaceutical company famous for its family-friendly image, is combating a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit from the state of Oklahoma for its role in the opioid crisis that experts say will affect more than a thousand lawsuits filed against other corporations allegedly involved in the epidemic.

The case represents the first full trial of a drug-maker involved in the opioid crisis, and Oklahoma’s Attorney General Mike Hunter is using the lawsuit to illuminate malfeasance by the broader industry.

Hunter is alleging that Johnson & Johnson worked with rivals to understate the risks of opioids and mislead the public, while the company’s defense argues that all of its drugs had FDA approval and cannot be linked to any specific overdoses.

If Johnson & Johnson loses the trial, it will hurt other drug companies using similar lines of defense.

Hunter brought 35 boxes filled with thousands of subpoenaed internal documents to court as evidence that Johnson & Johnson was more focused on profits than proper prescription of its drugs. Notes show how J&J’s drug division, Janssen (named after the inventor of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine), sold its fentanyl patch product, Duragesic, by making false claims about its addictive potential.

While most media attention related to the crisis has focused on Purdue Pharma, the creator of OxyContin, expert witness Dr. Andrew Kolodny, Co-Director, Opioid Policy Research, Brandeis University, testified that in some ways, Johnson & Johnson’s involvement in the opioid epidemic was worse.

“I had been much more aware of Purdue’s misdeeds and wrongdoing,” Kolodny said. “Until I had an opportunity to review discovery documents, I really was not aware of how bad Johnson & Johnson was.”
Kolodny said what differentiates Johnson & Johnson from other opioid manufacturers is its role in the entire production process of different types of drugs, including natural, synthetic and semi-synthetic opioids. The company bought poppy fields in Australia to benefit from supply chain ownership during surging demand, using subsidiaries like Noramco and Tasmanian Alkaloids to “create, grow and import” raw supplies not only to J&J but to competitors like Purdue.

“I think it’s fair to characterize Johnson & Johnson as a kingpin in our opioid crisis,” said Kolodny.

Johnson & Johnson denies wrongdoing and its defense attorney John Sparks says Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter’s case “ignores basic facts.”

“The testimony of the State’s witness, Dr. Kolodny, was filled with rampant speculation and conclusions not derived from facts,” Sparks said in a statement. “The evidence remains that Johnson & Johnson and its former subsidiaries appropriately and responsibly met all laws and regulations on the manufacturing, sale and distribution of active pharmaceutical ingredients and pharmaceutical products and did everything you’d expect a responsible company to do.”

Other Lawsuits Against Johnson & Johnson

Johnson & Johnson is currently facing more than 13,000 lawsuits related to the talc in its baby powder, which accusers say contains asbestos. Last December, a Reuters investigation showed the company knew its talc was sometimes tainted with asbestos for decades but intentionally concealed its findings from regulatory agencies and consumers.

Johnson & Johnson denies the allegations, but a St. Louis jury last year ordered the company to pay nearly $4.7 billion in damages to 22 women who developed ovarian cancer, and a New York jury ordered it to pay a cancer patient with a rare form of cancer related to asbestos $325 million in May.

“With this verdict, yet another jury has rejected J&J’s misleading claims that its talc was free of asbestos,” said Jerome Block, the lead attorney in the New York case. “The internal J&J documents that the jury saw, once more laid bare the shocking truth of decades of cover-up, deception and concealment by J&J of the asbestos found in talc baby powder.”

 

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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