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Opioid Epidemic Trial Against Johnson & Johnson Begins In Oklahoma


The first major trial in the opioid crisis began today in a courtroom in Oklahoma. The defendant is not Purdue Pharma, the company behind the painkiller OxyContin. It has settled with Oklahoma, as has another drug manufacturer, Teva. Both companies have agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to the state to fund addiction treatment. But the trial is continuing with Johnson & Johnson left as the sole defendant.

We begin our coverage with Jackie Fortier of StateImpact Oklahoma. She is at the courthouse. Hey there, Jackie.


KELLY: So set the scene for me. What is the case that Oklahoma is making here?

FORTIER: Well, today lawyers for Oklahoma made their opening statements, and they're laying out their case not for a jury because this is a bench trial but for the judge. Oklahoma State Attorney General Mike Hunter said that the flood of opioid medications into the state was a, quote, "manmade public health crisis."

So in other words, you know, the marketing of these painkillers was too aggressive, they say. The patients became, you know, dependent and addicted, and that led to diversion and more addiction. Some people took up street drugs like heroin and fentanyl, and people died. The state is grappling of course with the costs of addiction, and they're arguing that Johnson & Johnson created a public nuisance.

KELLY: A public nuisance - and walk me through the legal reasoning here.

FORTIER: Well, one of the attorneys for the state, Brad Beckworth, introduced a sort of slogan this morning, and he kept repeating it for the judge. Here it is.


BRAD BECKWORTH: If you over-supply, people will die.

FORTIER: It's a little bit off-mic, but he's saying, if you over-supply, people will die. And what he's arguing is that Johnson & Johnson created an oversupply, that their drug reps, you know, pushed opioids into the state, encouraged doctors to prescribe them and that that led to addiction, overdose and deaths. And to prove their point about the oversupply, Oklahoma lawyers dipped into some of the evidence that they'll present going forward in the trial.

One lawyer said Johnson & Johnson had a marketing campaign called the squeeze. It was designed to, in their words, put the squeeze on doctors to prescribe more opioids. We also heard from a memo from one drug representative that they wrote after visiting an Oklahoma doctor, and she described how the doctor had some hesitations about prescribing opioids. And then she said she was trying to dispel the doctor's hesitations.

KELLY: Well, we're going to here in just a moment about some of the - the case that Johnson & Johnson is planning to make. But let me ask you to zoom out and answer this. What is at stake for Oklahoma here? I mean, how big is the opioid crisis in Oklahoma?

FORTIER: Well, I mean, there are quite a few people who have died of opioid overdose in Oklahoma, but frankly we're not West Virginia. We don't have numbers that are quite that high. Oklahoma leaders have decided against expanding Medicaid. So this is a big public health crisis, and there isn't a whole lot of funding for treatment. So that's kind of the situation here.

KELLY: That's Jackie Fortier of StateImpact Oklahoma. Thanks for your reporting.

FORTIER: Of course. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie reported for StateImpact Oklahoma on a variety of topics including health.

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