Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson (center) announced a lawsuit against Johnson Johnson in a press conference Thursday. He was joined by Debbie Warfield, of Everett (left) and Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki (right), both of whom lost sons to opioids, and Rep. Lauren Davis, of Shoreline (second from right), founder of the Washington Recovery Alliance. (TVW)

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson (center) announced a lawsuit against Johnson Johnson in a press conference Thursday. He was joined by Debbie Warfield, of Everett (left) and Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki (right), both of whom lost sons to opioids, and Rep. Lauren Davis, of Shoreline (second from right), founder of the Washington Recovery Alliance. (TVW)

State sues Johnson & Johnson, claims it fueled opioid epidemic

SEATTLE — State attorneys sued Johnson & Johnson on Thursday, accusing the internationally known corporation of fueling an opioid epidemic in Washington through the use of deceptive marketing that their drugs were effective for treating pain and were unlikely to cause addiction.

The multinational company that supplies raw materials used to make opiates drove the pharmaceutical industry to recklessly expand the production of opioids to the point where there was more than a two-week supply of daily doses for every person in the state, according to the lawsuit filed in King County Superior Court.

“The human toll is staggering,” state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said at a news conference.

Debbie Warfield of Everett can personally attest to its cost. Her son, Spencer, was 24 and an Everett Community College student hoping to become a firefighter when he died of a heroin overdose in 2012. His battles with pain, and ultimately addiction to opiates, could be traced to an injury suffered years earlier playing football.

She shared her story and support for the legal action at the news conference.

“The effects of the opioid epidemic will be with us for generations to come,” Warfield said. If there’s money recovered from the company, she said, she hoped a portion would go into finding a science-based treatment for opioid addiction and providing resources to help families with their grief.

“I’m not sure we’ve found the correct treatment yet,” she said.

Skagit County Commissioner Lisa Janicki, who lost a son to an overdose of OxyContin in 2017, and Rep. Lauren Davis, D-Shoreline, who is executive director of Washington Recovery Alliance, also attended Thursday’s news conference.

Ferguson said prescriptions and sales of opioids in Washington increased more than 500% between 1997 and 2011. He said that in 2011, at the peak of sales, more than 112 million daily doses of all prescription opioids were dispensed.

The state’s lawsuit alleges the company violated the state’s Consumer Protection Act, was negligent and a public nuisance.

In addition to civil penalties and damages, the state wants the company to forfeit profits earned in Washington as a result of its behavior. That amount could be in the millions of dollars, Ferguson estimated.

In November, a judge in Oklahoma finalized an order directing Johnson & Johnson to pay that state $465 million to address the opioid crisis.

The judge said the company and its subsidiaries helped fuel the crisis with an aggressive and misleading marketing campaign that overstated how effective the drugs were for treating chronic pain and understated the risk of addiction.

Janssen Pharmaceutical Inc., a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary named in the lawsuit filed Thursday, said its opioid marketing was “appropriate and responsible.”

“Janssen provided our prescription pain medicines for doctors treating patients suffering from severe pain and worked with regulators to ensure safe use — everything you’d expect a responsible company to do,” its statement said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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