Los Angeles: A Tasmanian poppy farm has been cast as one of the villains in the landmark ruling by an Oklahoma judge ordering multinational corporation Johnson & Johnson to pay $US572 million ($847 million) for its role in helping fuel America's opioids crisis.
Tasmanian Alkaloids manufactures controlled substances providing medicinal opiates from poppy varieties grown on farms in Tasmania.
A 33-day trial concluded in Norman, Oklahoma this week with District Court Judge Thad Balkman slamming Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries for using "false, misleading and dangerous marketing campaigns" to sell oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and other drugs.
The court heard that between 1994 to 2006, prescription opioid sales in Oklahoma increased four-fold. From 2011 to 2015, more than 2100 Oklahomans died "of unintentional prescription opioid overdose" and in 2015, more than 326 million opioid pills were dispensed to Oklahoma residents, enough for every adult to have 110 pills.
The trial detailed how part of Johnson & Johnson's "pain management franchise" was Tasmanian Alkaloids, "which cultivated and processed opium plants to manufacture narcotic raw materials that were imported into the US to be processed and made into APIs (active pharmaceutical ingredients) necessary to manufacture opioid drugs".
"In the 1980s, Johnson & Johnson acquired and formed Tasmanian Alkaloids and Noramco, in order to ensure a 'reliable source of (narcotic) raw materials' and 'security of supply' for its Tylenol with Codeine range of pain medications," Judge Balkman wrote in his findings delivered on Monday.
Judge Thad Balkman: “The opioid crisis is an imminent danger and menace to Oklahomans.”Credit:AP
"Noramco, located in the US, imports the narcotic materials produced by Tasmanian Alkaloids, like morphine or thebaine, into the US, processes them into API, then sells them to drug manufacturers in the US."
Johnson & Johnson, which sold its Tasmanian Alkaloids/Noramco businesses in 2016, announced it would appeal Judge Balkman's ruling.
The court heard how in 1994, anticipated demand for oxycodone led scientists at Tasmanian Alkaloids to begin a project to develop a high thebaine poppy variety to meet the anticipated demand.
"The result of Defendants' research project was the creation of a 'high thebaine' poppy, called 'Norman Poppy' which Defendants internally described as a 'transformational technology that enabled growth of oxycodone'," the judge wrote.
Noramco grew to become the top narcotic API supplier of oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine and morphine in the US, the court heard.
In 1997, Johnson & Johnson, acting in concert with others, "embarked on a major campaign in which they branded and unbranded marketing to disseminate the messages that pain was being under treated and 'there was a low risk of abuse and a low danger' of prescribing opioids to treat chronic, non-malignant pain and overstating the efficacy of opioids as a class of drug", the judge wrote.
"Defendants used the phrase 'pseudoaddiction' to convince doctors that patients who exhibited signs of addiction – eg, asking for 'higher and higher doses' of opioids or returning to the doctor 'early' before a prescription should have run out – were not actually suffering from addiction, but from the under-treatment of pain; and the solution, according to Defendants' marketing, was to prescribe the patient more opioids."
Johnson & Johnson said the judge's decision is flawed and disregarded the company's compliance with federal and state laws, the unique role its medicines play in the lives of the people who need them, and its responsible marketing practices.
Oxycodone pills in the US.Credit:AP
"This judgment is a misapplication of public nuisance law that has already been rejected by judges in other states," Michael Ullmann, Johnson & Johnson's executive vice president, general counsel, said in a statement.
The Oklahoma ruling is expected to help shape negotiations around 1500 similar lawsuits filed by state, local and tribal governments consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio.
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