How to correct opioid misinformation? Spend $285M on countermarketing, expert says in J&J trial

Johnson & Johnson's opioid trial is taking place in Oklahoma's Cleveland County courthouse. (Cleveland County, Oklahoma)

Countless lawsuits have sought to estimate the costs of fixing the U.S. opioid and addiction epidemic. Now, thanks to an expert in Oklahoma's ongoing trial against Johnson & Johnson, we have one dollar figure.

Oklahoma would have to spend nearly $285 million to mount a countermarketing campaign that would offset pharma’s influence over pain prescribing, Saxum Strategic Communications chairman and CEO Renzi Stone testified during the state’s trial against Johnson & Johnson on Monday.

And that's just the cost of a campaign to spread awareness about the harms of opioids, Stone pointed out in testimony reported by the Oklahoman. It doesn't include the other costs of fixing the state's opioid crisis.

“Frankly, I am blown away and impressed,” Stone said of J&J’s opioid marketing at the trial, according to testimony posted by the newspaper. “The marketing materials, the depth of research, the significance of stakeholder mapping, the creation of budgets, the size of budgets, the quarterly review is breathtaking.” 

Stone said he was “very surprised” about a lack of training on potential abuse in the J&J materials he reviewed for the trial.  

On cross-examination by J&J’s attorney Larry Ottaway, Stone admitted his marketing plan wouldn't require J&J to stop doing anything.

Ottaway also pressed Stone on opioid prescribing decisions. Who should decide how best to treat patients—the state or the physician? Stone responded that it's “certainly not the sales and marketing team."

Stone’s testimony came on day 10 of the state’s trial against J&J. Oklahoma sued the company—plus Teva Pharmaceutical and Purdue Pharma—in 2017, but the other drugmakers settled ahead of trial. Purdue and its founding family agreed to fork over $270 million, and Teva settled for $85 million in an agreement that's still pending court approval.

Oklahoma alleged opioid makers “manipulated” residents into believing their pain drugs were safe to use for long periods of time. Prosecutors aim to recoup “catastrophic” damages the state has suffered as misleading marketing fueled the opioid addiction crisis. 

It remains to be seen just how the nationwide opioid litigation will play out, but Oklahoma is certainly an early test for the industry. And it’s a test that pushed two out of three defendants into a settlement as thousands of other lawsuits are pending. J&J has opted not to settle and argues it marketed opioid painkillers responsibly.