Mike Hunter, Oklahoma Attorney General, accused drugmakers of a “cynical deceitful multimillion dollar, brainwashing campaign to establish opioid analgesics as the magic drug,” in his opening statements that kicked off a historic trial on Tuesday that will be the first major test in the nation of whether a state can make a pharmaceutical company pay for the opioid epidemic that has ravaged the U.S..
The trial is expected to lay the groundwork for other states to hold drugmakers accountable for what Hunter stated to the court “the worst man-made public health crisis in the history of our country and state, the prescription opioid epidemic.”
“To put it bluntly, this crisis is devastating Oklahoma.” – Attorney General Mike Hunter
According to Hunter, the evidence at trial will show 4,653 Oklahomans died of unintentional overdoses involving prescription opioids within a 10-year window stemming from 2007 through 2017, and that there were more than 28,000 admissions for opioid and heroin treatment through state services from 2012 to 2018.
For children between the ages of 12 and 17 in 2013, Oklahoma ranked seventh in the nation for prescription pain reliever abuse as well as hundreds of babies with opioid-related neonatal abstinence syndrome being born each year.
“The pain, anguish and heartbreak (of) Oklahoma families, businesses, communities and individual Oklahomans is almost impossible to comprehend,” Hunter told the court. How did this happened? At the end of the day, your honor, I have a short, one-word answer: greed.”
According to opening statements from Hunter, the evidence at trial will show that drug companies “in their zeal to provide a magic drug… ignored centuries of experienced, well-documented scientific histories of deadly addiction epidemics.”
“Judge, money may not be the root of all evil, but I’ve learned this. … Money can make people and businesses do very bad things.”
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter and his team have chosen to make Johnson & Johnson the focus of the trial, alleging the company acted as a drug “kingpin,” created a public nuisance and cost the state of Oklahoma billions of dollars, destroying thousands of lives in the process. Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary company, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, have vehemently denied the allegations and said the public nuisance accusation is being misused.
It was the words of the founding father John Adams that defense attorney Larry Ottaway cited while laying out his case — “Facts are stubborn things,” Ottaway said in response to allegations made by the state of Oklahoma.
Ottaway said that in 2009 when Janssen said opioids were rarely addictive, the Food and Drug Administration also said the drugs “rarely caused addiction.” He played a video that encouraged children to avoid taking the prescription drugs of others and concluded, “Jansen is not marketing opioids to kids.”
In a statement ahead of the trial, Janssen said:
“it’s (Janssen Pharmaceuticals) marketing and promotion of these important prescription pain medications were appropriate and responsible. The FDA-approved labels for these prescription pain medications provide clear information about their risks and benefits. The allegations made against our company are baseless and unsubstantiated.”
At trial, Brad Beckworth, a private attorney hired by the state of Oklahoma, told the court that the far-reaching opioid crisis is responsible for broken marriages, families that have been torn apart, and has cost the nation $500 billion.
It “tears apart our community here in Oklahoma at the very seams,” Beckworth stated to the court.
“This opioid crisis, this public health crisis we’re in,” he said, “it is a man-made crisis, but the evidence will show this crisis is a drug company-made crisis, and one of the causes is sitting right here to my right, Janssen and Johnson & Johnson. Make no mistake about it.”
According to Beckworth, the drugmakers marketed their lethal products to anyone and everyone.
The damage being done was staggering according to Beckworth. 135 opioid pills were available for every adult in Cleveland County, Oklahoma, the site of the trial. 139,359 years of life were lost as a result of overdose deaths of prescription opioids; 149,183 sales visits were made to doctors in Oklahoma between 1999 and 2005.
Beckworth likened Johnson & Johnson to OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma and said the drug giants were in a competition over opioids.
“If you oversupply,” he repeated over and over, “people die.”
Hunter said the public deserves to know whether the company deliberately targeted children, the elderly and veterans for opioid painkillers, and whether it blocked legislation and regulatory action aimed at limiting opioid availability. In its statement, Johnson & Johnson said the company:
“did not market opioids to children, and the State’s suggestion to the contrary is false and reckless.”
Hunter also alleges that Johnson & Johnson used two subsidiaries, Tasmanian Alkaloids and Noramco, that “created, grew, imported and supplied to J&J and its other co-conspirators, including Purdue, the narcotic raw materials necessary to manufacture the opioid pain medications thrust upon the unsuspecting public since the 1990s.”
Johnson & Johnson called such accusations false. “The State ignores basic facts. Johnson & Johnson did not manufacture, sell, or market the FDA-approved medicines made by other companies that used Noramco” active pharmaceutical ingredients.
The judge has set aside two months for the trial.
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