By CAITY COYNE
CHARLESTON - Teva Pharmaceuticals and Johnson & Johnson will be the latest companies defending themselves in a West Virginia court against allegations of fueling the state's deadly opioid epidemic after Attorney General Patrick Morrisey filed two lawsuits in Boone County Circuit Court on Friday.
Morrisey's lawsuits claim that Teva and Johnson & Johnson, through its subsidiary Janssen Pharmaceuticals, violated the state's Consumer Credit and Protection Act and caused a public nuisance by spreading misinformation to doctors, pharmacies, patients and others in the state.
Through "educational" pamphlets and testimonies given by doctors paid by the companies, people were told - falsely - that opioids were not nearly as addictive as they are, and that their potential harm was limited, the lawsuits read.
This deception led to an increase in opioid prescriptions in the state, and eventually, the trend was accompanied by an increase in opioid-related hospitalizations, overdoses and deaths, the lawsuits say.
The falsehoods that were spread by the companies for nearly two decades were often debunked by further research and studies, the lawsuits read. Despite this, the companies did not correct the "misrepresentations" or "omissions of fact" they spread, or decrease efforts to influence prescribers, the lawsuits say.
If it weren't for Teva and Johnson & Johnson's actions, "opioid use would not have become so widespread, and the enormous public health hazards of opioid overuse, abuse, addiction and death that now exists would have been averted," the lawsuits read.
The companies' practices "have and will continue to injure and harm the citizens and the state of West Virginia for many years to come," they continue.
Teva and Johnson & Johnson's business methods drove up demand - and prescription - of opioids nationwide, but as the epidemic matured, West Virginia suffered disproportionately, according to the suits.
The state holds the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths in the nation. In 2017, for the first time, more than 1,000 people died because of opioid-related overdoses in the state. That number is expected to increase once statistics are finalized for 2018.
Counties in West Virginia's Southern coalfields - regularly referred to as "ground zero" for the epidemic - are among the top-ranked counties nationally for the number of opioid-related hospitalizations.
The opioid epidemic also costs West Virginia $8.8 billion a year, according to a study from the American Enterprise Institute. That's the highest per-capita economic burden caused by the opioid crisis of any state.
Of the 10 counties nationally that spend the most per-capita because of the opioid epidemic, six are in West Virginia: Boone (No. 1), Cabell (No. 3), Wayne (No. 5), Mingo (No. 7), Summers (No. 8) and Berkeley (No. 9). Those counties also have some of the highest drug overdose death rates in the state. Both lawsuits seek monetary relief for each violation of West Virginia law that is found.
The lawsuit filed in Boone is not the only opioid-related case Johnson & Johnson is facing at the moment. News outlets this week reported that an Oklahoma judge is expected to issue a verdict Monday, Aug. 26, in a similar case there against the company.
The state of Oklahoma also entered into an $85 million settlement with Teva in May, days before a trial was set to begin, in another similar lawsuit.
Both Oklahoma lawsuits made several of the same arguments Morrisey's do: Johnson & Johnson and Teva aggressively and recklessly marketed opioids to doctors through misinformation campaigns, which led to an increase in opioid prescriptions and, later, an increase in opioid-related abuse and death in that state.