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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Johnson & Johnson was the "kingpin" that fueled the country's opioid crisis, serving as a top supplier, seller and lobbyist, according to a state official leading the legal fight against the companies that helped create the crisis.

Why it matters: Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin, has been the main target so far in lawsuits. But court documents show attorneys general also are trying to cast a wider net, drawing more attention to J&J's role in the global opioid market.

Driving the news: The first big trial of the opioid epidemic is set to begin in May in Oklahoma. It will set the stage for similar litigation in other states, as well as the consolidated nationwide lawsuit that has been compared to the tobacco litigation of the 1990s.

  • Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter has asked a state court to publicly release millions of pages of confidential documents that J&J submitted during the discovery phase of the case.
  • "The public interest in this information is urgent, enduring and overwhelming," he wrote.

The intrigue: Johnson & Johnson may be better known for selling Band-Aids and baby powder, but the company has an extensive history with prescription painkillers.

  • J&J produced raw narcotics in Tasmanian poppy fields, created other active opioid ingredients, and then supplied the products to other opioid makers — including Purdue Pharma.
  • The company boasted at the time that one of its opium poppies "enabled the growth of oxycodone," and said the morphine content of a different poppy was "the highest in the world," according to investor slides obtained by Axios.
  • J&J sold the 2 subsidiaries that handled that business, Noramco and Tasmanian Alkaloids, to a private equity firm in 2016 for $650 million.
  • J&J also sold off Nucynta, an opioid pill it had marketed, for $1 billion in 2015. It still sells Duragesic, a fentanyl patch that had peak sales of $2 billion in 2004.

That's not all: Oklahoma is alleging J&J targeted vulnerable populations, including children and older adults, for painkiller prescriptions. The state also says J&J funded groups that aggressively advocated for easy access to opioids.

  • J&J has funded several pro-opioid groups, such as the Pain Care Forum. A brochure intended for seniors that was made by a J&J subsidiary also claimed "opioids are rarely addictive."

Because J&J divested its opioid businesses, Oklahoma's lawyers say, documents related to those activities aren't valuable trade secrets to J&J anymore, and therefore should be made public.

The other side: J&J urged the Oklahoma court to deny the attorney general's request, saying the state is seeking "sensationalistic headlines and to poison potential jurors."

  • J&J's attorneys also wrote that "even if the motion advanced a legitimate purpose," it would violate the court's processes.
  • In statements to Axios, J&J said its subsidiaries "met all laws and regulations" and that all allegations are "baseless and unsubstantiated."

The bottom line: Purdue Pharma has become the primary villain in the opioid litigation. But Oklahoma clearly sees J&J as another prime target.

Go deeper

44 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Stalemate over filibuster freezes Congress

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell's inability to quickly strike a deal on a power-sharing agreement in the new 50-50 Congress is slowing down everything from the confirmation of President Biden's nominees to Donald Trump's impeachment trial.

Why it matters: Whatever final stance Schumer takes on the stalemate, which largely comes down to Democrats wanting to use the legislative filibuster as leverage over Republicans, will be a signal of the level of hardball we should expect Democrats to play with Republicans in the new Senate.

Dave Lawler, author of World
1 hour ago - World

Biden opts for five-year extension of New START nuclear treaty with Russia

Putin at a military parade. Photo: Valya Egorshin/NurPhoto via Getty

President Biden will seek a five-year extension of the New START nuclear arms control pact with Russia before it expires on Feb. 5, senior officials told the Washington Post.

Why it matters: The 2010 treaty is the last remaining constraint on the arsenals of the world's two nuclear superpowers, limiting the number of deployed nuclear warheads and the bombers, missiles and submarines which can deliver them.

Updated 2 hours ago - Technology

Facebook refers Trump ban to independent Oversight Board for review

Photo: Alex Edelman/AFP via Getty Images

Facebook's independent Oversight Board has accepted a referral from the platform to review its decision to indefinitely suspend former President Trump.

Why it matters: While Trump critics largely praised the company's decision to remove the then-president's account for potential incitement of violence, many world leaders and free speech advocates pushed back on the decision, arguing it sets a dangerous precedent for free speech moving forward.