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Lawsuit Says Johnson & Johnson Was Opioid ‘Kingpin’

Should the pharmaceutical industry bear greater responsibility for the opioid crisis?

by Axios | 3.12.19

Johnson & Johnson was the "kingpin" that fueled the country's opioid crisis, serving as a top supplier, seller and lobbyist, according to a state official leading the legal fight against the companies that helped create the crisis.

Why it matters: Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin, has been the main target so far in lawsuits. But court documents show attorneys general also are trying to cast a wider net, drawing more attention to J&J's role in the global opioid market.

Driving the news: The first big trial of the opioid epidemic is set to begin in May in Oklahoma. It will set the stage for similar litigation in other states, as well as the consolidated nationwide lawsuit that has been compared to the tobacco litigation of the 1990s.

  • Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter has asked a state court to publicly release millions of pages of confidential documents that J&J submitted during the discovery phase of the case.
  • "The public interest in this information is urgent, enduring and overwhelming," he wrote.

The intrigue: Johnson & Johnson may be better known for selling Band-Aids and baby powder, but the company has an extensive history with prescription painkillers.

  • J&J produced raw narcotics in Tasmanian poppy fields, created other active opioid ingredients, and then supplied the products to other opioid makers — including Purdue Pharma.
  • The company boasted at the time that one of its opium poppies "enabled the growth of oxycodone," and said the morphine content of a different poppy was "the highest in the world," according to investor slides obtained by Axios.
  • J&J sold the 2 subsidiaries that handled that business, Noramco and Tasmanian Alkaloids, to a private equity firm in 2016 for $650 million.
  • J&J also sold off Nucynta, an opioid pill it had marketed, for $1 billion in 2015. It still sells Duragesic, a fentanyl patch that had peak sales of $2 billion in 2004.

That's not all: Oklahoma is alleging J&J targeted vulnerable populations, including children and older adults, for painkiller prescriptions. The state also says J&J funded groups that aggressively advocated for easy access to opioids.

  • J&J has funded several pro-opioid groups, such as the Pain Care Forum. A brochure intended for seniors that was made by a J&J subsidiary also claimed "opioids are rarely addictive."

Because J&J divested its opioid businesses, Oklahoma's lawyers say, documents related to those activities aren't valuable trade secrets to J&J anymore, and therefore should be made public.

The other side: J&J urged the Oklahoma court to deny the attorney general's request, saying the state is seeking "sensationalistic headlines and to poison potential jurors."

  • J&J's attorneys also wrote that "even if the motion advanced a legitimate purpose," it would violate the court's processes.
  • In statements to Axios, J&J said its subsidiaries "met all laws and regulations" and that all allegations are "baseless and unsubstantiated."

The bottom line: Purdue Pharma has become the primary villain in the opioid litigation. But Oklahoma clearly sees J&J as another prime target.

Bob Herman

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Axios

Written by Axios

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Leave a comment
(47)
  • Ken
    Voted Yes
    03/12/2019
    ···

    Of course they should. We are supposed to be able to trust our checks and balances put forward that makes sure pharmaceuticals are safe. This isn’t happening. With no regard to long range affect of prescription opioid use big pharma and congress working together has allowed this current situation involving addiction and profiteering of opioids to permeate. Of course the blame rests on the users, many of which had no idea of it’s long range strangle hold on them. Congress and big pharma made this catastrophe. We the people demand they fix it or find another job.

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  • Jim2423
    Voted No
    03/12/2019
    ···

    Who pushed the doctors into prescribing these medications and no follow up because they were supposedly “Safe”.

    Like (3)
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  • Linda
    Voted Maybe
    03/12/2019
    ···

    Meeting demand should not make them responsible for addiction. Saying that, there should be warning information provided.

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  • Janics
    Voted Yes
    03/12/2019
    ···

    Having worked in a physicians office I have witnessed pharmaceutical company representatives provide perks for the physicians to induce them to prescribe the company’s medication. YES the drug companies should be held accountable.

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  • Tooluser1
    Voted No
    03/12/2019
    ···

    So how *exactly* are pharmaceutical companies a5 fault here? Are they allowed to prescribe these meds? Administer them? I don't recall seeing Oxycodone trucks driving through my neighborhood passing out samples, or hearing that they'd laced other products with these meds undisclosed to sneakily hook people on them. In fact the distribution, management, administration, and access to these meds are utterly and completely BEYOND THE CONTROL OF THE MANUFACTURERS *BY LAW*. So HOW can they POSSIBLY be at fault? The *only* distinguishing feature that makes them attractive for this type of suit is deep pockets. That's vile and unethical.

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  • Jim
    Voted Maybe
    03/12/2019
    ···

    Everyone voting YES, is just looking to get some RICH company to pay for something without putting the blame on the individuals. This is just like liberals placing blame on guns and not the shooters!

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  • Jude
    Voted Yes
    03/12/2019
    ···

    This is logical that the drug companies are reaping the most egregious financial benefits.

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  • S
    Voted Yes
    03/12/2019
    ···

    Greed. Greed by corporations. Greed by politicians. Greed by individuals. Everything seems to be led by only one thing--greed--for money, for power, for personal benefit. When does the benefit for the greater good begin? Is that something we have to live without?

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  • Gerry
    Voted Yes
    03/13/2019
    ···

    If non one wants to hold the ‘kingpin’ responsible then I guess Chappo should be set free. Why should he be charged with distributing narcotics to his dealers (doctors) who then distributed to patients (victims). Same thing

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  • I.Got.an.Idea...
    Voted Yes
    03/12/2019
    ···

    Absolutely. So should the attorneys and judges and politicians that have previously supported the complete unethical pushing of sales of opioids, manufacturing and the political denial of other alternative medicines.

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  • Nancy
    Voted Yes
    03/13/2019
    ···

    THEY KNEW IT IS WAS DANGEROUS AND ONLY WORRIED ABOUT PROFIT

    Like (1)
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  • Allanrdaz
    Voted Yes
    03/13/2019
    ···

    The destruction that Big Pharma brought upon innocents will be noted as one of the largest mass killings in our nations history. If corporations want to have the benefits of personhood then they should be accountable for the crimes they commit. If found guilty, the Executives should swing.

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  • Marian
    Voted Yes
    03/12/2019
    ···

    Seems apparent the Pharmaceutical Industry bears greater responsibility for the Opioid Crisis!

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  • Robert
    Voted Yes
    03/12/2019
    ···

    For years, we have interfered with the rights of other countries when it comes to producing dangerous drugs, while pretending that our production and pushing of addictive, dangerous drugs such as alcohol and tobacco should not be their business. Hypocritical to the nth degree. If J & J is the major pusher of opioids, they should be treated like any other cartel of drug pushers.

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  • Jim2423
    Voted No
    03/12/2019
    ···

    At first I said Yes but after searching more data. I changed my mind. Yes pharmaceutical companies have come out with some great pain killers. Which I also have used after major surgery. But I am not longer using them. Stopped after the first week. To me it is the doctors prescribing the medication and the patient who wants to keep using. There are plenty of pain reduction classes out there that doctors could prescribe instead of more opioids. We need these pain reduction medicines. We also need competent doctors to do their job.

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  • John
    Voted Yes
    03/13/2019
    ···

    I am sure they paid good money to get doctors to prescribe medication people didn’t need

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  • Susan
    Voted Yes
    03/13/2019
    ···

    I want everyone to stop and take notice. Even today physicians still want to give a drug instead of doing necessary tests to find the cause of chronic pain. I know personally. I refused the medication over & over again until they sent me to a Neurologist which found that my L5 in my back was bone against bone. Now the Surgeon turned me down to do surgery and referred me to a Pain Management Doctor who agreed with me that I couldn’t take medications due to my other illness. So, now I have to go back with that certification to see if he will now do the surgery. There has to be other reasons why doctors prescribe instead of fixing the problems.

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  • Darby
    Voted Yes
    03/13/2019
    ···

    They are selling to patients who already have addictions

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  • A david
    Voted Yes
    03/13/2019
    ···

    There is plenty of wrong doing to go around here.

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  • J.J.
    Voted No
    03/15/2019
    ···

    What never gets mentioned is that the FDA recommended a switch from NSAID to opioid painkillers because of the serious risks of NSAIDS. Big companies will always take advantage and should be penalized for false advertising. It’s possible there should be much greater restrictions on medical advertising of any kind. But the fact remains that there are a great many patients being hurt. The salacious coverage of the opioid war doesn’t much consider: More people safely use opioids than nonsafely, and there’s actually no safe pain treatment at all for many kinds of pain. Leaving pain untreated is also unsafe. The major causes of abuse and adverse events are known: *prior history of abuse (such as with alcohol) *concurrent use of benzodiazepines with opioids *failure to have drug-based treatments in prison *failure to fund drug-based treatments generally These are fixable problems. While it might be more salaciously interesting to point fingers at doctors and companies, this won’t solve anything for the patients. A continued focus on the evils of opioids while there’s not safe pain treatments will simply demonize chronic pain patients who may be using opioids responsibly (or may not be using opioids at all, yet constantly suspected of being a drug-seeker simply because of occasionally complaining of a symptom which limits and plagues them constantly).

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  • Kathi13
    Voted Yes
    03/13/2019
    ···

    The pharmaceutical companies must bear some of the responsibility for the problem that have had a part in creating.

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