State sues Johnson & Johnson subsidiary for deceptively marketing opioids

The state Attorney General’s Office has sued two opioid manufacturers this year, but never one based in New Jersey. That changed Tuesday when Attorney General Gurbir Grewal filed a 97-page complaint against Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a Raritan-based subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.

“We allege that for years Janssen, a wholly owned subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, aggressively and deceptively marketed its prescription opioid products to the people of New Jersey, knowing full well that its products carried a high risk for addiction and for abuse,” Grewal said.

Grewal said over an eight year period Janssen marketed two pain relievers — Nucynta and Nucynta ER, or extended release — as safer than other opioids like OxyContin and fentanyl.

He said the company paid doctors to give speeches and testimonials for the drug’s relative safety, when in fact the company knew that its product was just as addictive as other opioid pain killers. He issued a warning.

“Our message is clear, if you violate our laws, if you illegally push opioids for profit, we will hold you accountable, no matter who you are and no matter where you operate,” he said.

The complaint is civil, not criminal. The state is seeking civil penalties, restitution and damages.

Janssen sold its rights to Nucynta in 2015 for $1 billion, so the action is aimed at punishing the company for past behavior.

According to the lawsuit, in one of Janssen’s marketing materials the company wrote, “Many studies show that opioids are rarely addictive when used properly for the management of chronic pain.”

“Janssen’s representatives promoted Nucynta and Nucynta ER as safer, milder, and less addictive than competitor opioids like Oxycontin, but Janssen’s statements were unsupported and misleading,” said Paul Rodriguez, acting director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs.

“They funded bogus research. They pushed bogus theories like pseudo-addiction, things that have been debunked. They positioned Nuynta and Nucynta ER as a safer alternative to other, more powerful opioid drugs,” Grewal said.

Janssen did not respond to a request for comment. The lawsuit was filed Tuesday morning in Mercer County. Company records are included in the complaint but are redacted in places. Grewal is asking the judge and the company to un-redact those portions for the sake of transparency.

Before today, Grewal’s predecessor Chris Porrino had filed lawsuits against Insys Therapeutics and Purdue Pharma.

The parent company Johnson & Johnson was not named in the suit, but Grewal said if it turns out they were part of the fraud he’ll go after them too.

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