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Oklahoma at trial says J&J’s deceptive marketing fueled U.S. opioid crisis

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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.

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.

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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.

Reporting by Ben Fenwick in Norman, Oklahoma; Writing by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Scott Malone, Jonathan Oatis and Bill Berkrot

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