Ohio Sues Five Drug Firms, Saying They Fueled Opioid Crisis -- Update

By Jeanne Whalen Features Dow Jones Newswires

Ohio is suing five drugmakers, the state's attorney general said Wednesday, alleging they fueled an opioid crisis in the state by misrepresenting the addictive risks of their painkillers.

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The lawsuit, filed in state court in Ross County, targets various units of parent companies Purdue Pharma LP, Johnson & Johnson, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., Allergan PLC and Endo International PLC.

Attorney General Mike DeWine said at a news conference that the companies were dishonest with doctors about their painkillers' risks. He said they marketed heavily to general practitioners, who "may not have a particular specialty in that area."

"The evidence is going to show they knew what they were saying was not true and they did it to increase sales," Mr. DeWine said.

In a statement, Johnson & Johnson, parent of Janssen Pharmaceuticals, which sells Duragesic, said: "We firmly believe the allegations in this lawsuit are both legally and factually unfounded. Janssen has acted appropriately, responsibly and in the best interests of patients regarding our opioid pain medications, which are FDA-approved and carry FDA-mandated warnings about the known risks of the medications on every product label."

Teva said it is reviewing the complaint and didn't have an immediate comment. Teva and its Cephalon Inc. unit sell the painkillers Actiq and Fentora.

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Purdue, maker of the painkiller OxyContin, said: "We share the attorney general's concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions."

Allergan and Endo declined to comment. Allergan sells Kadian, Norco and generic opioids. Endo, parent of Endo Health Solutions, makes the painkiller Opana.

Ohio has been among the states hardest hit by opioid addiction, which has helped drive U.S. overdose deaths to all-time highs. Many people became addicted by taking powerful opioid painkillers, and often then turned to heroin if they couldn't get access to pills. Public-health officials have long blamed aggressive company marketing and lax opioid painkiller prescribing for sparking the crisis.

In an interview, Mr. DeWine said Ohio's lawsuit is among the most comprehensive taken by any state against opioid-painkiller makers. He said he believed only Mississippi has filed a suit similar in scope to Ohio's.

Some cities and counties, including Chicago and California's Orange and Santa Clara counties, have also sued opioid painkiller makers, alleging misleading marketing that fueled addiction. West Virginia sued drug distributors, alleging they improperly flooded the state with addictive painkillers.

Perhaps the biggest legal hit to a painkiller company came in 2007, when Purdue Frederick Co., an affiliate of Purdue Pharma, and three of its executives pleaded guilty in federal court to criminal charges of misleading the public about the addictive qualities of OxyContin, and agreed to pay the federal government and a group of states $634.5 million in fines. That settlement grew out of a multistate investigation and a federal lawsuit.

Write to Jeanne Whalen at jeanne.whalen@wsj.com

In one of the highest-profile cases to date against makers of prescription painkillers, Ohio filed suit against five drug companies, alleging they fueled the opioid addiction crisis by misrepresenting the addictive risks of their painkillers.

The complaint, filed in state court in Ross County on Wednesday, targets parent companies and various subsidiaries, including Purdue Pharma L.P.; Johnson & Johnson; Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd.; Allergan PLC; and Endo International PLC's Endo Health Solutions unit.

Johnson & Johnson denied the allegations. The other companies either declined to comment or said officials were reviewing the allegations.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a Republican who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the state, said at a news conference that the companies were dishonest with doctors and the public about their painkillers' risks.

"The evidence is going to show they knew what they were saying was not true and they did it to increase sales," he said.

In an interview, Mr. DeWine said opioid addiction has taken an extraordinary human and financial toll on Ohio, which has one of the highest opioid overdose death rates of any state. He said the addiction crisis has placed great financial burdens on the state, including the Medicaid program, which provides substance-abuse treatment, and foster-care programs, which are grappling with a big rise in children taken out of parental care because of addiction.

"You have so many people today who can't pass a drug test, who can't work in a factory, who can't be employed to drive a car or work around machinery or be store manager at McDonald's because they can't pass a drug test," Mr. DeWine said.

States and the federal government have previously pursued legal action against Purdue, alleging improper marketing of the painkiller OxyContin, and won settlements from the company. And some cities and counties have pursued lawsuits against broader groups of opioid painkiller makers.

Mr. DeWine said Ohio's lawsuit is among the most comprehensive taken by any state against a broad group of opioid painkiller makers. He said the only other similar lawsuit was filed by Mississippi in state court in December 2015, alleging similar wrongdoing against the same five companies. That suit is pending.

One lawyer in private practice in Mississippi, John Davidson, is listed as outside counsel for the plaintiffs in both the Ohio and Mississippi cases.

Another lawyer listed as outside counsel for the state on the Ohio case, Mike Moore of Flowood, Miss., was Mississippi's attorney general in 1994 when the state filed the first state lawsuit against the tobacco industry, alleging companies misrepresented the health risks of their products. His suit touched off a flurry of litigation by states against the industry that ultimately concluded with a $206 billion settlement.

In an email, Mr. Moore said he sees "parallels" between the tobacco and opioid litigation, including the "misleading marketing."

In a statement about the Ohio case, Johnson & Johnson, parent of Janssen Pharmaceuticals, which sells Duragesic, said: "We firmly believe the allegations in this lawsuit are both legally and factually unfounded."

"Janssen has acted appropriately, responsibly and in the best interests of patients regarding our opioid pain medications, which are FDA-approved and carry FDA-mandated warnings about the known risks of the medications on every product label," said the company, referring to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Teva said it is reviewing the complaint and didn't have a comment. Teva and its Cephalon Inc. unit sell the painkillers Actiq and Fentora.

Purdue said: "We share the attorney general's concerns about the opioid crisis and we are committed to working collaboratively to find solutions."

Allergan and Endo declined to comment. Allergan sells Kadian and Norco. Endo makes the painkiller Opana.

One of the biggest legal hits to a painkiller company came in 2007, when Purdue Frederick Co., an affiliate of Purdue Pharma, and three of its executives pleaded guilty in federal court to criminal charges of misleading the public about the addictive qualities of OxyContin. The company and executives agreed to pay the federal government and a group of states $634.5 million in fines.

That settlement grew out of a multistate investigation and a federal probe. In 2015, Kentucky reached a separate $24 million settlement with Purdue over its OxyContin marketing.

Elizabeth Burch, a law professor at the University of Georgia, said the Ohio suit is unsurprising, given that Purdue has paid settlements in the past.

"A lot of states are looking for money to subsidize substance-abuse programs. As they do that and as previous states reach settlements, there is blood in the water at this point," she said.

Ohio has been among the states hardest hit by opioid addiction, which has played a part in driving U.S. overdose deaths to all-time highs. Many people became addicted by taking powerful opioid painkillers and often progressed to heroin if they couldn't get access to pills. Public-health officials have long blamed aggressive company marketing and lax prescribing for sparking the crisis.

The Ohio case comes at a time when politicians are increasingly citing the addiction epidemic as a major policy priority.

President Donald Trump has pledged to address the opioid crisis and formed a task force earlier this year to study addiction, with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a fellow Republican, as chairman. But critics have said the president's proposed budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 would slash funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy and that the GOP's legislation to overhaul the Affordable Care Act envisions cuts to Medicaid, which pays for significant amounts of addiction treatment.

The Ohio complaint alleges the drug companies violated the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act through marketing programs that "falsely deny or trivialize the risks of opioids while overstating the benefits of using them for chronic pain." The state says the false marketing included medical journal advertising and sales representative statements.

It also alleges the companies engaged in misleading marketing by funding outside groups that have advocated for wider treatment of pain. These groups were "seemingly unbiased and independent patient and professional organizations" but disseminated information that played down the risks of opioids, the complaint alleges.

Ohio is seeking an injunction to stop the companies from their "misrepresentations" of the drugs' risks, and civil penalties to compensate the state for the costs tied to the addiction crisis.

Because the lawsuit was filed in state court, other states cannot join the suit as plaintiffs.

Some cities and counties have also sued opioid painkiller makers, alleging misleading marketing that fueled addiction.

West Virginia has sued drug distributors, alleging they improperly flooded the state with addictive painkillers. Earlier this year the distributors Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisourceBergen agreed to pay West Virginia $36 million to settle the state's allegations.

Cardinal Health said it denied wrongdoing. In a statement, AmerisourceBergen said: "With this matter settled, we look forward to focusing our full attention on continuing to work diligently with regulatory agencies and our partners throughout the supply chain to combat diversion and support appropriate access to medications."

Write to Jeanne Whalen at jeanne.whalen@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 31, 2017 21:43 ET (01:43 GMT)