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Oklahoma accuses Johnson & Johnson of fueling opioid crisis

Reuters logo Reuters 5/28/2019 Ben Fenwick
a large white building: A Johnson & Johnson building is shown in Irvine, California© Reuters/Mike Blake A Johnson & Johnson building is shown in Irvine, California

By Ben Fenwick

NORMAN, Okla. (Reuters) - The state of Oklahoma accused Johnson & Johnson on Tuesday of using deceptive marketing to create an oversupply of addictive painkillers that fueled the U.S. opioid epidemic, at the start of the first trial in lawsuits over the drug abuse crisis.

Lawyers for the state made those claims in their opening statements in a state court in Norman, Oklahoma. The trial in the multi-billion dollar case is the first to result from around 2,000 similar lawsuits against opioid manufacturers nationally.

a group of people sitting at a table in a room: Judge Thad Balkman welcomes a full court on the first day of a trial of Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries in Norman© Reuters/NICK OXFORD Judge Thad Balkman welcomes a full court on the first day of a trial of Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries in Norman

The lawsuits by state and local governments seek to hold the companies responsible for a drug epidemic the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says led to a record 47,600 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2017.

a man wearing a suit and tie: Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter observes the proceedings on the first day of a trial of Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries in Norman© Reuters/NICK OXFORD Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter observes the proceedings on the first day of a trial of Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries in Norman

Brad Beckworth, a lawyer for the state, said J&J, along with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd, used misleading marketing beginning in the 1990s to push doctors to prescribe more opioids.

Beckworth said J&J, which sold the painkillers Duragesic and Nucynta, did so by marketing opioids as "safe and effective for everyday pain" while downplaying their addictive qualities, helping create a drug oversupply.

a sign on the side of a building: A sign is seen on the outside of the courtroom on the first day of a trial of Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries in Norman© Reuters/NICK OXFORD A sign is seen on the outside of the courtroom on the first day of a trial of Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries in Norman

He said J&J was motivated to boost prescriptions not only because it sold painkillers, but because it also grew and imported raw materials opioid manufacturers like Purdue used.

a group of people sitting in front of a television: Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter enters the courtroom on the first day of a trial of Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries in Norman© Reuters/NICK OXFORD Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter enters the courtroom on the first day of a trial of Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries in Norman

"If you have an oversupply, people will die," Beckworth said.

Larry Ottaway, J&J's lawyer, countered that its marketing statements did not differ from those made by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which in 2009 said painkillers when properly managed rarely cause addiction.

"We're not mocking anyone, but facts are stubborn things," he said.

Oklahoma resolved its claims against Purdue in March for $270 million and against Teva on Sunday for $85 million, leaving only New Brunswick, New Jersey-based J&J as a defendant in the nonjury trial before Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman.

a group of people standing next to a person in a suit and tie: Attorney Michael Burrage enters the courtroom on the first day of a trial of Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries in Norman© Reuters/NICK OXFORD Attorney Michael Burrage enters the courtroom on the first day of a trial of Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries in Norman

Reggie Whitten, another lawyer for the state, said the companies' actions created a public nuisance that will cost nearly $13 billion to remedy over two decades.

"This is the worst manmade public health crisis in our state's history," Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said.

The case is being closely watched by plaintiffs in other opioid lawsuits, particularly the 1,850 cases consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio, who has been pushing for a settlement ahead of an October trial.

Some plaintiffs' lawyers have compared the cases to litigation by states against the tobacco industry that led to a $246 billion settlement in 1998.

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