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Expert witness: Johnson & Johnson's role in opioid crisis may be 'worse' than Purdue's

One of the nation's top experts on opioid addiction said Tuesday that Johnson & Johnson's role in the current epidemic may be even "worse" than that of Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin.

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Wayne Drash
CNN — One of the nation's top experts on opioid addiction said Tuesday that Johnson & Johnson's role in the current epidemic may be even "worse" than that of Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin.

Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University, made the comments during the 11th day of the historic trial in Oklahoma that is aimed at holding Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries responsible for the state's opioid epidemic.

"Until I had an opportunity to review discovery documents," Kolodny testified, "I really was not aware of how bad Johnson & Johnson was."

He added, "I think that is probably true for many people."

So much media attention has focused on the role that Purdue -- and its powerful owners, the Sackler family -- played in the nation's opioid crisis, Kolodny said, that Johnson & Johnson had largely escaped public scrutiny.

"I had been much more aware of Purdue's misdeeds and wrongdoing," Kolodny testified.

"In some ways," he continued, Johnson & Johnson has been "worse."

The state has alleged that two Johnson & Johnson subsidiaries, Tasmanian Alkaloids and Noramco, "created, grew, imported and supplied to J&J and its other co-conspirators, including Purdue, the narcotic raw materials necessary to manufacture the opioid pain medications thrust upon the unsuspecting public since the 1990s."

AG: Drug company acted as 'kingpin'

Kolodny said Johnson & Johnson differentiated itself from other drug makers because it played a part in all three types of opioids: natural, semi-synthetic and synthetic. He said he once traveled, as part of his professional curiosity, to Tasmania to see the fields where the opioids "flooding" into the United States were originating.

Before that trip, Kolodny said, he reached out to Tasmanian Alkaloids, but it was "clear" that the company didn't want him to visit. "I was eager to go and see what was happening there," he said.

He added that a public trial like the one playing out in Oklahoma was important to expose "the lies we've been told" by the pharmaceutical industry, similar to the way trials exposed the ways of Big Tobacco. "All of that helped change the attitudes in this country about smoking," Kolodny said. "I believe we can see the same benefit [from] opioid litigation."

Although Johnson & Johnson is best known for its baby powder, for years the company marketed the extended-use opioid tablet Nucynta, which it sold for $1 billion in 2015. It still makes a fentanyl patch called Duragesic.

Johnson & Johnson has denied wrongdoing, saying it marketed opioids appropriately and accusing Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter of sensationalizing the company's role. Defense attorney John Sparks has said the state "ignores basic facts" and has hit back hard against accusations that the company deliberately targeted children, veterans and others for profits.

Hunter has said Johnson & Johnson acted as a "drug kingpin."

Tuesday's testimony came a day after a marketing expert said it would take a nearly $285 million marketing campaign over 20 years to counteract the impact of Big Pharma's campaign to sell painkillers in Oklahoma.

That $285 million estimate was solely based on marketing and did not include the millions of dollars the state would need to continue to deal with the epidemic, including costs of treatment and paying first responders, said Renzi Stone, the head of a marketing agency in Oklahoma.

Earlier settlements in Oklahoma case

Hunter scored two major settlements ahead of the trial: $270 million from Purdue Pharma and another $85 million from Teva Pharmaceuticals, one of the world's largest makers of generic drugs. The companies settled without any admission of wrongdoing.

On Monday, Teva said it was ready to send the money to the state. There was some back-and-forth about where the money should be sent. Cleveland County Judge Thad Balkman then ordered both sides to address the issue in filings this week.

The trial against Johnson & Johnson is expected to last for much of the summer.

The Oklahoma trial is the first major trial of nearly 2,000 cases across the country in which states, cities and hard-hit local municipalities are seeking to hold opioid makers accountable for the epidemic that has left hundreds of thousands of Americans dead.

Kolodny testified that he has "never" heard from anyone at Johnson & Johnson about helping him combat the nation's opioid addiction problems.

Asked whether he felt he'd ever been vilified for his role in speaking out against drug makers, he said simply, "yes."

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