The Texas attorney general's office is suing pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson for fraud, alleging it misrepresented the dangers of one of its opioid medications and helped fuel the state's opioid crisis.
The civil lawsuit filed Tuesday says that Johnson & Johnson's sales representatives told doctors that the drug Duragesic, a pain patch that delivers the drug fentanyl through the skin, had fewer side effects, worked better and posed less of a risk for addiction than other opioids.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton claims that the company's characterizations were false. He said the company and its subsidiary, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, which is also named in the lawsuit, were able to obtain taxpayer-funded Medicaid reimbursements for the drug after disseminating false and misleading information.
“Like other opioid manufacturers, Johnson & Johnson misled the State of Texas and the entire medical profession about the danger of these drugs in order to turn the greatest profit,” Paxton said in a statement Wednesday. “In this case, Johnson & Johnson not only defrauded Texas taxpayers and diverted precious health care dollars from Texans in need, they contributed to the opioid crisis that has destroyed the lives of an untold number of Texas families.”
The state has requested a jury trial and seeks more than $1 million in damages, including repayment of any money the company received through Medicaid related to the drug.
"Janssen contributed centrally to this ongoing public health emergency," the lawsuit says. "They did so by propagating junk science questioning the abuse potential and addictive properties of opioids, and even downplaying the need for more reliable data identified in that science."
Tuesday's lawsuit is the second filed by the state of Texas against a pharmaceutical manufacturer related to the opioid crisis. Last year, the attorney general's office sued Purdue Pharma for deceptive trade practices after it said that company misrepresented the dangers of its drug OxyContin through a "sophisticated marketing scheme." That case has not been settled.
In August, Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay $572 million to the state of Oklahoma after Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman found the company had helped fuel that state's opioid crisis. It was the first state opioid case to make it to trial, and legal experts say it could help shape negotiations in about 1,500 similar lawsuits filed by other state, local and Native American tribal governments.
Addiction experts in Oklahoma say the money from the settlement could pay for a year's worth of drug treatment efforts in the state. Johnson & Johnson has said it plans to appeal the ruling.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid created by the founder of Janssen Pharmaceuticals in 1960 and was at first delivered solely to patients intravenously before it was placed in transdermal patches in the 1980s. The drug is used for the treatment of chronic pain, particularly in those with cancer. According to the lawsuit, it has a high potential for abuse and has been designated a Schedule II narcotic in the United States. Even a small amount can lead to overdose and death.
While provisional data for 2018 from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that overdose deaths from all classes of drugs are on target to fall in the U.S. for the first time in 30 years, deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl are still on the rise. The category also includes such medications as codeine and morphine, as well as illicit fentanyl, which is typically trafficked into the United States from China and sold on the streets often mixed with heroin.
Addiction experts say fentanyl is driving the bulk of deaths from the opioid crisis today. Between 2013 and 2016, the rate of deadly overdoses where fentanyl was a factor doubled each year, the lawsuit says. In the last decade, deaths involving fentanyl in Texas tripled from 118 in 2007 to 348 deaths in 2017, the National Institute for Drug Abuse said. Most deaths involving fentanyl, however, are not related to prescription fentanyl but illicit fentanyl, according to the CDC.
This article includes material from The Associated Press.