Kentucky accuses J&J of contributing to opioid epidemic

(Reuters) - Kentucky's attorney general on Wednesday sued Johnson & JohnsonJNJ.N, accusing the pharmaceutical manufacturer of devising a deceptive marketing scheme that mischaracterized the risk of opioid abuse and addiction.

A Johnson & Johnson building is shown in Irvine, California, U.S., January 24, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake

The lawsuit by Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear was his fifth to date seeking to hold a drug manufacturer or distributor responsible for its role in the national opioid epidemic.

The lawsuit, filed in McCracken Circuit Court, accused J&J and its Janssen Pharmaceuticals unit of misrepresenting that its opioid medications were safer than alternatives and were “rarely addictive” when used for chronic pain.

Those opioids included Duragesic, which before 2009 accounted for at least $1 billion in annual sales, and Nucynta and Nucynta ER, the lawsuit said. Janssen sold the rights to Nucynta to another drugmaker in 2015.

The lawsuit seeks penalties and compensatory and punitive damages.

“Janssen has profited from their illegal conduct, and my office is taking action to make sure they pay for ravaging our communities and destroying our families just to make a profit,” Beshear said in a statement.

J&J in a statement said that it marketed and promoted opioids appropriately and that its products’ labels provided information about their risks and benefits.

Opioids were involved in more than 42,000 overdose deaths in 2016, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hundreds of lawsuits by states, counties and cities have accused drugmakers of pushing addictive pain-killers through deceptive marketing and wholesale distributors of failing to report suspicious drug orders.

Eight other states have sued J&J. Beshear is also pursuing similar cases against drug distributors AmerisourceBergen Corp ABC.N, Cardinal Health CAH.N and McKesson Corp MCK.N and drugmaker Endo International PlcENDP.O.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Dan Grebler