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Washington AG targets ‘prolific supplier’ Johnson & Johnson in opioid lawsuit

Johnson & Johnson finds itself embroiled in a lawsuit filed by WA State AG Bob Ferguson. (Getty Images)

It’s a company associated with Band-Aids and baby shampoo that won’t hurt your baby’s eyes. But in a new lawsuit, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson contends Johnson & Johnson played a key role in fueling an ongoing opioid epidemic.

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In the lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court Thursday, Ferguson accuses the company and its subsidiaries of not only misrepresenting the danger of Oxycontin and other opioid drugs to both doctors and patients, but also being a main reason the entire pharmaceutical industry dramatically expanded the use of prescription opioids.

Ferguson says that is because unlike most other pharmaceutical companies blamed for the opioid crisis, Johnson & Johnson, through its subsidiaries, not only manufactured its own raw materials needed to make opioid drugs by developing a new poppy plant strain, but also sold those ingredients to other U.S. drug makers, leading to the aforementioned massive expansion of prescription opioid use industry-wide, according to the lawsuit.

The massive expansion of opioids led to 8,000 deaths in Washington state between 2006 and 2017, Ferguson said, including Debbie Warfield’s son, Spencer, who died of a heroin overdose in 2012 after getting hooked on prescription pain medication.

“Our family will never be the same, and as a mother I will always feel like I could have done more to save Spencer … I will live with that the rest of my life,” Warfield said at a Thursday press conference, adding she would continue to tell her story to help get the massive resources needed to turn the crisis around.

“I wish I would have known then what I know now,” said Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki, as she recalled losing her youngest son, Patrick, in 2017, after he got hooked nearly a decade before when multiple doctors started giving him opioid prescriptions after he broke his back.

Janicki, who also serves on her county’s board of health says she never thought twice when she’d find bottles of pills and packages of fentanyl patches lying around, because they were prescriptions that came from a doctor.

Janicki says treatment, a recovery coach, and multiple Narcan doses were not enough to save her son. That being so, she’s fighting for more resources to prevent and treat opioid addiction.

“It has instilled in me the resolve to bring back to our community the funding, the programs, the people so that families don’t have to go through this,” Janicki said. “When we’re losing our children we are failing.”

Ferguson says the company also was negligent, using deceptive marketing that misled doctors about the risks and benefits of its drugs, claiming they were effective for treating pain and not likely to cause addiction.

Ferguson is seeking unspecified civil penalties and damages in the lawsuit, and also wants a judge to order Johnson & Johnson to cough up every dollar it made off the sale of prescription opioids in Washington, which he expects to be millions.

Increase in fentanyl deaths doesn’t tell whole story

That money would be used to expand treatment and prevention services in Washington and whatever else is needed to combat the opioid crisis — a fight expected to last generations.

The bottom line, Ferguson said, is that Johnson & Johnson must be held accountable for the damage it’s caused in Washington state.

Johnson & Johnson did not respond to request for comment Thursday. However, in a statement to KIRO Radio Friday morning, the company’s subsidiary named in the lawsuit, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, defended its opioid marketing as ‘’appropriate and responsible,’’ and vowed to vigorously defend itself against Ferguson’s allegations.

Here is the full statement:

We deeply sympathize with those affected by the tragic impact of opioid abuse and addiction.

Our actions in the marketing and promotion of these important prescription pain medications were appropriate and responsible.  Janssen provided our prescription pain medicines for doctors treating patients suffering from chronic pain and worked with regulators to provide appropriate information about their risks and benefits – everything you’d expect a responsible company to do. Additionally, our prescription opioid medications – DURAGESIC®, NUCYNTA®, and NUCYNTA® ER – have, since launch, accounted for less than one percent of total opioid prescriptions in the U.S.  The company intends to defend vigorously against the Attorney General’s allegations.

One of Janssen’s former affiliates supplied raw materials for some of the important prescription pain medications that helped provide vital therapies for millions of patients living with pain across America. The raw materials supplied by our former affiliates are heavily regulated by governments and drug-enforcement agencies around the world, including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Our former affiliates did not have any role in the manufacturing, sale, or marketing of the finished products of Janssen or other pharmaceutical manufacturers.

We believe litigation is not the answer to public health crises, and we continue to work with partners to help communities in need.

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