NORMAN, Okla. (CN) – A defense witness for opioid manufacturer Johnson & Johnson strongly denied Tuesday during Oklahoma’s bellwether trial against the pharmaceutical giant that sales employees misled and pressured doctors to prescribe the highly addictive painkillers.
Jason Flanary, a senior district sales manager for subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals, testified during the sixth week of the closely watched trial. Oklahoma is seeking $10 billion dollars from Johnson & Johnson for its role in the public health crisis.
Flanary testified that he manages seven sales employees selling to doctors in Oklahoma and West Texas.
“Our representatives work on a daily basis with the doctors that they go to church with, that they see at the grocery store, that they see at the ball fields,” he said on the witness stand. “And it’s very important that our Janssen specialists are able to maintain their credibility in front of their customers.”
Flanary said “the last thing we want to do” is deceive physicians with information that could harm patients, adding that the company wants to maintain healthy relationships with doctors with “fair and balanced” drug information.
“It could potentially harm your cousin or one of your best friends that seeks care from that doctor,” he testified.
Flanary explained that the sales employees do not just talk to doctors, they also provide digital materials on the company’s internal copy review processes and clinical study results. He also noted that U.S. Food and Drug Administration package inserts and drug dosage cards are physically provided to physicians.
On cross-examination, Oklahoma’s attorneys grew frustrated at Flanary’s repeated refusal to say Johnson & Johnson did anything wrong to help cause the opioid crisis.
Flanary eventually said “no one is perfect” when asked about his refusal, adding that “neither me or you” are perfect.
The landmark bench trial is the first of approximately 2,000 cases filed in federal and state courts nationwide against drugmakers over their role in the opioid epidemic. Over 1,400 of the federal cases have been consolidated in Ohio federal court, where the judge overseeing it has been urging the parties to reach settlements with state and local government plaintiffs.
Oklahoma sued Johnson & Johnson, its subsidiary Janssen, Teva Pharmaceutical Industries and OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma in 2017 for fraud, unjust enrichment, public nuisance and violation of state Medicaid laws for allegedly pushing doctors to prescribe opioid painkillers while downplaying the addiction risks and overstating their benefits.
Purdue settled in March for $270 million. Israel-based Teva reached a similar settlement in May for $85 million – two days before the trial began.
Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiary are the only remaining defendants. In the weeks before trial, the state dropped all claims except its public nuisance claim to prevent further delays caused by defense appeals.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said during opening arguments that the drugmakers have “created the worst manmade public health crisis in our state’s history.”
The trio “embarked on a cynical, deceitful, multibillion-dollar brainwashing campaign to establish opioid analgesics as the magic drug,” Hunter said. “Money can make people do bad things, very bad things.”
Flanary’s testimony is a direct rebuttal to Oklahoma’s star witness Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
He blamed the crisis on doctors overprescribing opioids, sayinghe first became aware of the issue in the 2000s when he saw a study concluding an increase in opioid prescriptions resulted in more accidental overdose deaths.
“There were so many doctors who recognized this practice was harming patients,” Kolodny testified last month. “It makes no sense to prescribe a highly addictive drug for common and everyday pain, but it was hard to speak out against it because it had become accepted.”
Opioids were involved in over 47,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.