Court proceedings mount against pharma firms behind OxyContin

JOHNSON & Johnson, Purdue Pharma and Israel-based firm Teva Pharmaceuticals are under increased legal pressure over their roles in the US’s opiate crisis.

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Johnson & Johnson is one of the world’s largest drug manufacturers, and is on trial in a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit by the state of Oklahoma. This is the first of more than 1,500 cases brought against pharmaceutical firms by state, local and tribal governments.

The state alleges in its court filing that the company was the “kingpin” behind “the worst man-made public health crisis” in the state’s history.

Prosecutors say Johnson & Johnson deceptively marketed painkillers such as OxyContin (produced by Purdue) and downplayed addiction risks. More than 70,000 Americans died of opiate overdoses in 2017 alone, and more than 100 die each day in what has been called an “opioid epidemic”.

Johnson & Johnson denies the allegations, and claims it marketed the products in a responsible way.

In opening statements in the city of Norman, Oklahoma said that Johnson & Johnson, along with Purdue Pharma and Teva Pharmaceuticals, had pushed doctors to prescribe opioids in the 1990s with misleading marketing.

State lawyer Brad Beckworth said Johnson & Johnson had claimed OxyContin was safe and effective “for everyday pain” and had downplayed the pills’ addictive qualities.

The states of California, Maine and Hawaii have joined others in suing Purdue over its role in the crisis. The states accuse Purdue of putting profits before people, and OxyContin is now one of the most widely abused drugs in the US.

In addition to its action against Purdue, Maine is suing brothers Richard and Jonathan Sackler, and two of their cousins, Mortimer Sackler and Kathe Sackler. All four served on the board at Purdue, and Richard Sackler is a former president of the company. The Sackler family wholly owns Purdue.

California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, said Purdue Pharma and Richard Sackler “started the fire and then poured gasoline” on it with irresponsible practices. The state alleges contradictory evidence about the drug’s safety was ignored, and called the marketing drive “deliberate and deceptive”.

Some 45 states have filed civil lawsuits against Purdue. More than 1,500 city and county governments are suing the company in a collective case in a federal court in Ohio.

Some other pharmaceutical manufacturers are also likely to be sued.


 Publicly traded companies in this story:

Johnson & Johnson JNJ 162.91 +0.71 +0.44%
Teva Pharmaceuticals TEVA 10.34 -0.36 -3.36%