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Exclusive: Lawsuit says Johnson & Johnson was opioid "kingpin"

A judge's gavel about to crush a red and white pill.
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.

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