A multi-billion-dollar lawsuit filed by the state of Oklahoma may go a long way toward sending Big Pharma crashing to its knees.
The suit is pitting the state against Johnson & Johnson, which is a U.S. corporate giant better known for family-friendly products such as Band-aids and baby powder than for opioids. But the state wants to hold the company accountable for its part in an epidemic that has so far led to the deaths of 400,000 people over the last 20 years.
The evidence so far presented in the trial has been startling, to say the least.
In one memo, a sales representative from Johnson & Johnson tried to allay the fears of a local physician who was worried that the company’s opioids would be addicting. The sales representative calmed the doctor by telling him that if a patient did not die from abuse of their products, it was unlikely that they would become addicted to them. In another memo, the company proposed to target opioid sales to the group most at risk of addiction: young males.
During the trial, it has also come to light how Johnson & Johnson was not satisfied with just producing and selling dangerous opioids. This was not sufficient profit for them, so they also bought companies in Australia that were producing the poppy seeds that supply the addictive narcotic in their products. They further not only used the seeds to produce their products, but they also sold them to other large pharmaceutical companies so that they could make their own dangerous opioids.
One of the key witnesses in the state’s case against Johnson & Johnson has been Dr. Andrew Kolodny. This man has been a combatant in the war against opioids in the United States for a considerable amount of time, but even he was shocked at the role the company has played in the opioid crisis.
“I think it’s fair to characterize Johnson & Johnson as a kingpin in our opioid crisis,” he told the court.
Michael J. Hunter is the attorney general of Oklahoma and the man behind the lawsuit. Being that he is a conservative Republican, he may not seem the likeliest of candidates to bring down Big Pharma. But even he knew that he had to do something. Not only is he suing Johnson & Johnson for billions of dollars, but he is also trying to expose dangerous industry practices.
One of the practices that Hunter has exposed during the trial is how pharmaceutical companies have been colluding with each other. He has shown how major producers of opioids have conspired to use their combined influence over physicians to drive up sales of all their products. Hunter has boldly said during the trial that these companies were motivated to do all this by “greed.”
Hunter has also accused Big Pharma of conspiring to create an untrue narrative in the United States that stated that there were lots of people in the country suffering from pain and that the only solution to this was opioids. He says that Big Pharma has used industry organizations like the American Pain Society to spread this lie, and he also says that this has led to the surge in opioid prescriptions.
The lawsuit in Oklahoma could very well end up being a landmark case in the battle against opioids. Big Pharma is certainly worried that it could. Experts say that not only are major pharmaceutical companies following the case closely, but so are distributors and retailers of opioids. This is because at the moment there are in excess of 2,000 lawsuits pending across America against opioid-producing companies, and these companies are concerned that the courts just may hold them accountable for their actions in creating the opioid epidemic.
Another interesting facet of the Oklahoma case is that it has delved into the history of the crisis. The prosecution has described how Purdue Pharma started the opioid epidemic in the 1990s when it released OxyContin onto the market. Prosecutors have also described how Johnson & Johnson went about competing with Purdue and other companies.
Johnson & Johnson’s pharmaceutical division is called Janssen, which was founded by a man who invented an artificial opioid called fentanyl more than 50 years ago. Back in the early part of the 1990s, the company sold a fentanyl patch under the brand name Duragesic, which was used to treat cancer patients who were suffering from extreme pain. But when the company saw the success of OxyContin, they decided to aggressively market Duragesic beyond cancer patients. Hunter says that they did this by falsely claiming that Duragesic was not addictive.
To help prove his case, Hunter has presented thousands of company memos that were written during meetings between the company’s sales representatives and doctors. These memos have categorically indicated that the company was far more interested in selling the drugs than they were in selling the drugs responsibly.
Part of the company’s sales strategy involved the use of a high-powered consulting firm called McKinsey & Company. McKinsey guided Johnson & Johnson’s sales representatives to push Duragesic upon doctors who were already prescribing large amounts of OxyContin. They also developed a strategy to keep people on Duragesic even if they were clearly suffering adverse effects from the drug. Finally, they helped the company get as many people as possible off less powerful opioids and onto the company’s more powerful ones.
These are not the best of times for Johnson & Johnson. Not only are they facing numerous lawsuits because of the opioids they have pushed onto the American public, but they are also facing making billions of dollars of payments to settle lawsuits relating to their use of cancer-causing asbestos in their baby powder.
Of course, the company is denying any responsibility for the opioid crisis. They say that their drugs were approved by the FDA and that there is no evidence linking their products with addictions in Oklahoma. But the question right now is whether the judge presiding over the case will believe them.