AG Hunter: Drugmakers’ ‘greed’ helped ignite opioid crisis in Oklahoma

“How did this happen? I have a short, one-word answer: Greed.”

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Attorney General Mike Hunter listens to the opening statements from the defense attorney Larry Ottaway during opioid trial at the Cleveland County Courthouse in Norman on Tuesday, May 28, 2019.[/Chris Landsberger/Pool photo
Pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson oversaturated the market with addictive painkillers and helped fuel an opioid crisis in Oklahoma out of greed, the state’s attorney general told a crowded courtroom in Norman on Tuesday.

In the first day of a nationally-televised trial, Attorney General Mike Hunter told the court drugmakers rushed to brand opioids as “a magic drug,” despite knowing they were addictive and dangerous. The result was a deadly epidemic, Hunter said.

“How did this happen?” Hunter asked during opening statements. “I have a short, one-word answer: Greed.”

Oklahoma’s case against drugmakers argues companies intentionally created an opioid epidemic with an aggressive marketing campaign that exaggerated the drugs’ benefits and downplayed their addictive and potentially dangerous qualities.

Between 2007 and 2014, 4,653 Oklahomans died from unintentional prescription opioid overdoses, Hunter said.

Brad Beckworth, a Texas-based attorney representing the state, said Johnson & Johnson helped create “the worst manmade health crisis in history.”

Johnson & Johnson created a medical need for opioids by marketing a myth that pain was severely undertreated in the U.S., Beckworth said. The company then rushed to meet that manufactured need.

“If you oversupply, people will die,” Beckworth repeated several times throughout opening statements.

State’s attorney Brad Beckworth presents information in the opening statements during the Oklahoma v. Purdue Pharma opioid trial at the Cleveland County Courthouse in Norman on Tuesday, May 28, 2019. Chris Landsberger/Pool photo

Larry Ottaway, an Oklahoma City attorney representing Johnson & Johnson, argued the company marketed its FDA-approved opioids responsibly and the drugs serve an important medical purpose.

“I want everyone to think of what it would be like if instead of going away, that pain stayed with the person every day, every hour, every week, every year and never left,” Ottaway said. “Serious chronic pain is a soul-stealing, life-robbing thief.”

Johnson & Johnson manufactures the opioid pill Nucynta and Duragesic, a fentanyl patch. Ottaway said the drugs are linked to few cases misuse, addiction or overdose. Rather, OxyContin, manufactured by Purdue Pharma, and hydrocodone were the two most misused drugs and accounted for many of the overdose cases.

Ottaway pointed out that Oklahoma doctors and pharmacists had the responsibility to properly prescribe and distribute the drugs. Additionally, he said, state agencies knew of the encroaching crisis for more than a decade but did nothing to stop it.

Defense attorney Larry Ottaway speaks during his opening statements of the opioid trial at the Cleveland County Courthouse in Norman  on Tuesday, May 28, 2019. Chris Landsberger/Pool photo

Ottaway said the state won’t be able to prove the company caused any harm.

The state of Oklahoma last month dropped all claims against drugmakers except a public nuisance complaint, which in part would mean the opioid epidemic has affected communities at large and not only individual drug users.

“I believe the evidence will show that justice for Oklahomans will require defendants to clean up the terrible tragic mess that they have left us with in our state, whatever the cost,” Hunter said.

During comments to reporters after the court adjourned Tuesday evening, Hunter said there were no ongoing settlement talks with Johnson & Johnson.

The state settled with Israel-based Teva Pharmaceuticals for $85 million on Sunday.

“While the company has long stated that the courtroom is not a place to address the crisis, Teva is pleased to put the Oklahoma case behind it and remains prepared to vigorously defend claims against the company,” an emailed statement from Teva said.

The state earlier this year settled with Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, for $270 million.

The trial in Cleveland County is expected to last two months and will be decided entirely by Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman.

Related reading: 

Oklahoma could be test on who will pay — and how much states are willing to accept — for opioid crisis

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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