A civil lawsuit brought by the state of Oklahoma against drugmaker Johnson & Johnson went to trial Tuesday over the company’s alleged role in the U.S. opioid epidemic.
The first-of-its-kind trial, which holds opioid manufacturers responsible for the drug crisis gripping the country, could have a large impact on other states seeking similar compensation.
In opening statements, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter called the prescription opioid epidemic the “worst man-made public health crisis in the history of our state and country.”
Hunter further characterized Johnson & Johnson as being motivated by greed and having been engaged in “a cynical, deceitful multimillion-dollar brainwashing campaign.”
Drugmakers named in the lawsuit denied claims made by the state, which is located in the U.S. Great Plains. Two of those companies settled with the state before the trial began.
In an opening statement, Larry Ottaway, a Johnson & Johnson defense lawyer, told the court that Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, advertised its drugs in compliance with a Food and Drug Administration consensus that said opioids “only rarely caused addiction.”
The state of Oklahoma alleges Johnson & Johnson created a surplus of painkillers and is responsible for creating a “public nuisance.”
“If you have an oversupply, people will die,” said Brad Beckworth, a private attorney hired by the state of Oklahoma. In explaining some of the numbers behind the crisis, he told the court there were 135 opioid pills available for every adult in Cleveland County, which has a population of about 280,000. Cleveland County is where the trial is being held.
County District Judge Thad Balkman will decide the case, in lieu of a jury.
On Sunday, Israel-based Teva Pharmaceuticals Ltd. reached an $85 million settlement with the state. Teva said in a statement, “The settlement does not establish any wrongdoing on the part of the company. Teva has not contributed to the abuse of opioids in Oklahoma in any way.”
In March, Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, settled with the state for $270 million.
Nationwide, states, cities and tribal governments have brought more than 1,600 lawsuits against drugmakers, seeking compensation for money spent addressing the opioid epidemic.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, there were 388 overdose deaths involving opioids in Oklahoma in 2017, a rate of 10.2 deaths per 100,000 persons. The national rate was 14.6 deaths per 100,000 persons.
In his opening statement, Attorney General Hunter said opioid overdoses had killed 4,653 people in the state from 2007 to 2017.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose deaths involving prescription opioids rose from 3,442 in 1999 to 17,029 in 2017, the latest year for such data. Drug overdose deaths involving any opioid — prescription opioids (including methadone), synthetic opioids and heroin — rose from 18,515 deaths in 2007 to 47,600 deaths in 2017, according to the CDC.