Washington State Attorney General sues Johnson & Johnson over opioid crisis

On Jan. 3, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson. The state is accusing the multinational corporation of deceptively marketing opioids as effective for treating chronic pain with a low risk of addiction, despite overwhelming evidence that suggests using opioids for three months or longer substantially increases risk for an opioid use disorder.

Ferguson said in a news release that prescriptions and sales of opioids in the state have increased more than 500% between 1997 and 2011. Between 2006 and 2017, opioid overdoses killed over 8,000 people in Washington, more than those who were killed by car accidents or firearms.

The lawsuit says Johnson & Johnson marketed its opioid drugs for pain conditions like chronic headaches, low back pain, and fibromyalgia despite evidence that opioids are not effective at treating these conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 2016 Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain determined that no study exists to show opioids are effective for long-term pain treatment.

Johnson & Johnson also funded a number of professional and patient advocacy organizations to forward its narrative, including the American Pain Foundation and the American Academy of Pain Management. According to an investigation by former Missouri senator Clair McCaskill, some of the groups went on to issue guidelines minimizing the risks of opioid addiction, change laws aimed at curbing opioid abuse, and protect doctors sued for overprescribing painkillers.

Aside from manufacturing the drugs, Johnson & Johnson also supplies raw narcotic materials and ingredients to major opioid manufacturers nationwide, including Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin. Ferguson filed a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma in November 2017, accusing the company of “conducting an uncontrolled experiment on the American public without reliable evidence that opioids are effective for chronic pain.”

In September of 2019, Purdue filed for bankruptcy as a part of a tentative settlement with over 2,000 local governments across 23 states involved in various suits against the company. Ferguson opposed this settlement, stating that “the purported settlement does not provide accountability or adequate relief to address the opioid epidemic in Washington State.”

The trial against Purdue was set for Feb. 24, but was ultimately delayed until April 8 by a federal bankruptcy judge in November 2019.

Unredacted court documents from a separate lawsuit filed by Oregon against Purdue show how the Sackler family, who owns the company, directed nearly $11 billion to partnered companies, foreign entities, and trusts between 2008 and 2018. This siphoning of funds left the company running with so little cash they couldn’t engage in basic corporate tasks like research and development, according to the court documents.

Janssen Pharmaceutical Inc., a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary named in the lawsuit, describes its opioid marketing as “appropriate and responsible.”

“Janssen provided our prescription pain medicines for doctors treating patients suffering from severe pain and worked with regulators to ensure safe use—everything you’d expect a responsible company to do,” their statement said.

Photo Credit: Washington State AG’s Office