West Virginia AG sues opioid makers, says they hid risks

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia's top prosecutor filed suits Friday against the major opioid makers Johnson & Johnson and Teva Pharmaceuticals USA for misrepresenting the risks of their painkilling drugs.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey delivering a speech about efforts against opioids in March 2018

The separate suits filed in Boone County, West Virginia, by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey accuse the drugmakers of violating the state's Consumer Credit and Protection Act and seek monetary penalties. Johnson & Johnson subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals and Teva sister company Cephalon are also named as defendants.

Morrisey says the companies engaged in strategic campaigns to deceive prescribers.

Teva told doctors that patients could take increasingly strong opioids without disclosing the rising risk of addiction, according to the lawsuit. The company disguised its marketing efforts through third-party advocates and professional associations, Morrisey said.

Johnson & Johnson, through Janssen, is also accused of downplaying the dangers of painkillers, distributing patient education guides that sought to dispel the "myth" that opioids are addictive.

West Virginia, which has the nation's highest opioid overdose rate, has been the site of many suits against the industry.

About 30 hospitals in the state and affiliates in Kentucky banded together in April to sue some of the largest opioid companies, saying they flooded Appalachia with powerful painkillers and forced medical centers to deal with the financial repercussions.

In May, West Virginia reached a $37 million settlement with the drug distributor McKesson over a lawsuit that accused the company of sending millions of suspicious painkiller orders to the state as it was being ravaged by the opioid epidemic. The company admitted no wrongdoing.

The state has received about $84 million through settlements with companies in opioid lawsuits, according to the attorney general's office.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says opioids were involved in more than 47,000 deaths in both 2017 and 2018. More than 2,000 state, local and tribal governments have filed similar claims seeking to hold the drug industry accountable for the opioid crisis. Most of suits have been consolidated under a federal judge in Cleveland.

West Virginia University President Gordon Gee and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich on Thursday announced they were creating a nonprofit to steer cash from any national opioid settlement to hospitals, instead of local and state governments.

Below is Morrisey's full press release about the suit:

The Attorney General alleges both manufacturers helped fuel the opioid epidemic by individually engaging in strategic campaigns to deceive prescribers and misrepresent the risks and benefits of opioid painkillers.

“The widespread deception alleged in our lawsuits cannot be tolerated,” Attorney General Morrisey said. “Bad actors within the pharmaceutical supply channel cause immense harm to the state of West Virginia and its citizens. They must be held accountable for their actions.”

The lawsuits, filed separately in Boone County Circuit Court, allege the defendants fraudulently concealed misconduct, mischaracterized and failed to disclose the serious risk of addiction, overstated the benefits of chronic opioid therapy and promoted higher dosage amounts without disclosing inherently greater risks.

The Johnson & Johnson lawsuit alleges its subsidiary and co-defendant, Janssen Pharmaceuticals Inc., turned the standard of care on its head by choosing to persuade concerned doctors that the opioids they had been unwilling to prescribe were more effective and safe enough for wide and long-term use, even for treatment of relatively minor pain conditions.

Similarly, the Teva lawsuit alleges that sales representatives for that manufacturer marketed the fentanyl-based opioid Actiq to non-oncologists and pain clinic doctors, even though the representatives knew the drug in question was for cancer patients.

Both lawsuits allege the manufacturers’ conduct and campaign of misrepresentations led to opioids becoming a common treatment for chronic pain in West Virginia, a reality that fueled substance abuse and the state’s skyrocketing rate of overdose deaths.

The Attorney General alleges the manufacturers’ conduct violated the state’s Consumer Credit and Protection Act and caused a public nuisance. Both lawsuits seek injunctive and equitable relief.

The Teva Pharmaceuticals USA Inc. lawsuit also names Cephalon Inc. as a defendant. Both are subsidiaries of Teva Pharmaceuticals Limited.