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Washington sues Johnson & Johnson over opioids

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 2, 2020

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson speaks at a news conference in Seattle on Aug. 26. Washington state sued Johnson & Johnson on Thursday, claiming the company was negligent when it used deceptive marketing to say the drugs were effective for treating pain and were unlikely to cause addiction. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson speaks at a news conference in Seattle on Aug. 26. Washington state sued Johnson & Johnson on Thursday, claiming the company was negligent when it used deceptive marketing to say the drugs were effective for treating pain and were unlikely to cause addiction. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

Washington filed its third lawsuit tied to the opioid crisis Thursday, claiming one of the nation’s biggest companies deceived doctors and patients about the addictive nature of the pain killers it developed and marketed.

The state is suing Johnson & Johnson Corp. for an unspecified amount of damages for the costs of opioid addiction to state residents, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said. It’s the third suit stemming from opioid addiction his office has filed, with a 2017 suit against Purdue Pharmaceuticals stalled by the company’s bankruptcy and a 2019 lawsuit against three companies that distributed the drugs set for trial in October.

One big difference for this lawsuit, Ferguson said, is Johnson & Johnson was one of the major suppliers of raw materials for other companies to make opioids as well as a manufacturer of the drugs. He called it “the next major step” in the state’s fight against companies that made and sold the drugs to patients in Washington.

The company did not immediately respond to a request for a comment on the lawsuit.

“When Washingtonians think of Johnson & Johnson, they probably think of baby shampoo,” Ferguson said.

But other divisions of the company developed a new poppy that produced larger amounts of the chemical needed to make opioids and processed it in Tasmania, he said, while a separate division shipped it to the United States.

The company claimed its opioid products had a low risk of addiction despite warnings on the label. It also claimed people who still experienced pain or showed signs of addiction were actually experiencing something called “pseudoaddiction,” which was really just a reaction to not receiving a strong enough dose, he said.

The treatment for pseudoaddiction was more opioids, Ferguson said.

The lawsuit contends Johnson & Johnson, its subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals and related companies were negligent, violated the state’s consumer protection laws and are a “public nuisance.” Opioids cause more deaths in Washington than auto accidents or guns, and enough opioids were sold in Washington in 2011 to give every person – including children – a 16-day supply, he said.

Last year, Ferguson turned down a settlement offer from Purdue Pharma, the target of the state’s first opioid lawsuit. Attorneys from other states and local entities suing Purdue are split on the settlement, he said, and he was among those saying no because he believes the offer wasn’t good enough.

The family that owns the company has made billions from opioids and the settlement was too small, he said, and the family was not required to acknowledge responsibility for the damage their drugs caused.

It’s too soon to say whether the latest lawsuit or the case against opioid distributors could eventually be settled.

“I don’t rule out a settlement down the road,” he said. “I think some cases need to be tried.”

People whose lives or families have been affected by opioid addiction want to be able to go to court and hear employees of the companies admit what they did, Ferguson said. Although spending any money the state receives from opioid cases would be under the control of the Legislature, he said it should be used to address opioid addiction, not put into the General Fund.

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