NORMAN, Okla. (CN) – The star expert witness in Oklahoma’s $10 billion trial against Johnson & Johnson for its alleged role in the country’s opioid crisis gave damning testimony Tuesday that drugmakers aggressively pushed doctors to unnecessarily prescribe the highly addictive painkillers for common pain.
Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University, made the accusation during day 11 of the bellwether bench trial.
Oklahoma sued Johnson & Johnson, its subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals, 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.
Kolodny testified that Johnson & Johnson’s part of the opioid crisis may be greater than that of the Sackler-family owned Purdue, which has dominated the headlines with several high-profile lawsuits and public criticism for OcyContin’s role in the crisis.
“I was not aware of how bad Johnson & Johnson was until I had an opportunity to review the discovery documents,” Kolodny said. “I had been more aware of Purdue’s misdeeds.”
Kolodny blamed the flood of opioid usage since 1996 on the destruction of “the dam of narcotic conservatism” in this country.
Kolodny said he first became concerned about patient safety in the 2000s, when he read a study that concluded an increase in opioid prescriptions resulted in more accidental opioid overdose deaths.
“There were so many doctors who recognized this practice was harming patients,” he said. “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.
Kolodny testified that state lawmakers became involved when journalists began to point out how much money the drugmakers were putting into medical organizations, and he was asked to investigate the issue.
Kolodny said he has been attacked and vilified for his role in speaking against the opioid makers. He said this trial and others like it are needed to expose the alleged “lies” drugmakers have told the public about opioids.
“All of that helped change the attitudes in this country about smoking,” he said. “I believe we can see that same benefit in opioid litigation.”
Kolodny called the opioid crisis the worst public health crisis in the United States “since the Spanish flu epidemic” and said that it has had an enormous death toll.
“Oklahoma’s one of the hardest hit states in the country in terms of overdose deaths,” he testified. “The rate of overdose deaths and in opioid prescribing and, in certain types of opioid prescribing, Oklahoma is at the very top of the list.”
Defense attorneys unsuccessfully tried to prevent Kolodny’s testimony earlier in the day. Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman overruled arguments claiming that Kolodny is not a statistician and has never performed any type of statistical analysis.
“He relied primarily on correlation, which is not the same as causation, it’s just not his area,” attorney Michael Yoder with O’Melveny Meyers said. “He has not done the work that a true causation expert would do to offer those opinions.”
The trial recessed for the day before the defense could begin its cross-examination of Kolodny.
In a written statement, defense attorneys said his testimony was filled with “rampant speculation and conclusions” that were not based in fact.
“His petitions to the [Food and Drug Administration] have been explicitly rejected,” the defense attorneys said. “And further, his comments on the production of medical-grade pharmaceutical ingredients under the regulation and authorization of the [Drug Enforcement Administration] and FDA are offensive, sensationalist and baseless.”
The landmark 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. More than 1,400 federal cases have been consolidated in an Ohio federal court, where the judge overseeing it has been urging the parties to reach settlements with state and local government plaintiffs.
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said during opening arguments that the three drugmakers have created “the worst manmade public health crisis in our state’s history.”
“To put it bluntly, this crisis is devastating Oklahoma,” he said. “How did this happen? At the end of the day, your honor, I have a short, one word answer – greed.”
Opioids were involved in more than 47,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In the build up toward trial, Oklahoma officials in April dropped all claims except for the public nuisance claim. Hunter said he did so to avoid defendants’ attempts at “wasting time” trying to delay trial with additional pre-trial appeals.
The trial is expected to go through July.