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The 1st State Trial Of The Opioid Epidemic Is About To Begin

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Oklahoma's attorney general blames a pharmaceutical firm for the deaths of thousands of people. Starting today that company, Johnson & Johnson, has its time in court. It's the first major lawsuit to go to trial challenging a drug company for its role in the opioid crisis. Jackie Fortier is on the line. She's a reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma and has been covering this case for NPR.

Good morning.

JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What does Oklahoma want?

FORTIER: Well, I mean, really, they're looking for funding. They're looking for as much money as possible, as quickly as possible. I talked with Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, and he's the one who brought the lawsuit. And he told me that taking these companies to court is really the only way the state can fund opioid treatment. I mean, you've got to keep in mind that Oklahoma has the second-highest uninsured rate in the nation. The state hasn't expanded Medicaid. State legislators have really slashed public health funding in recent years. So add on top of that the huge opioid addiction crisis, and you've got very few facilities, and they're almost always full.

INSKEEP: So I'm thinking this through from Johnson & Johnson's perspective. I guess if you're a business, you want to kind of get your liabilities, you know, in a predictable - into a predictable place, which might help explain why a couple of other big companies, pharmaceutical companies, settled their lawsuits with the state of Oklahoma. But Johnson & Johnson is going ahead. Why did they not settle the way that other companies have?

FORTIER: Well, I think Johnson & Johnson, you know, from the court documents, really thinks that they have a different type of case. I mean, they produced a Fentanyl patch. They didn't produce something like Purdue Pharma did, which is the opioid OxyContin. They think that they don't necessarily have the same type of market share that Purdue Pharma or even Teva Pharmaceuticals did, both of whom have now settled with the state.

INSKEEP: Well, this is really interesting. Then what is the case by the state of Oklahoma that Johnson & Johnson ought to be included with the other companies that did other things?

FORTIER: Well, I mean, Oklahoma AG Hunter is saying that anyone, really, who sold, you know, opioids in the state is liable. I mean, the court documents that we've - that we have seen so far is that the state is accusing them of these really aggressive, you know, opioid marketing campaigns in a way that overstated the effectiveness and, you know, misinterpreted the addiction risk. But the really interesting thing, like, about this case is that we'll finally get to see the evidence. We haven't been able to see that before. So this trial is going to bring to light, you know, documents and testimony that show what Johnson & Johnson knew, when they knew it and, key, how they responded.

INSKEEP: So you mentioned that the state of Oklahoma needs money here to deal with the crisis. Has Mike Hunter said how this money would be spent if his side were to win?

FORTIER: Well, I mean, we're kind of seeing that already. There was $270 million that Purdue Pharma settled with the state for, and that is going to go to build a treatment center in Tulsa, which is kind of in its preliminary stages right now. He said in the past that the money will go towards treatment. With the Teva Pharmaceutical settlement, a certain portion of that, 85 million, is also going to go towards treatment. But we don't know how much right now.

INSKEEP: What if Oklahoma loses?

FORTIER: Well, if Oklahoma loses then the state is going to have to come up with a lot of money to help pay for the thousands of people who still need addiction treatment. You know, the state's strategy is really going to be closely watched because there's all these upcoming cases, including the large one in Ohio. And, you know, Oklahoma decided to go it alone and won't get anything if, for example, they win the Ohio case.

INSKEEP: Jackie, thanks.

FORTIER: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's Jackie Fortier. She is a reporter with StateImpact Oklahoma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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