This month, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal filed a five-count lawsuit against Janssen Pharmaceuticals over allegations that the drugmaker understated the addiction risk of opioids. Grewal further alleges that the Johnson & Johnson subsidiary engaged in an aggressive marketing campaign targeted at elderly patients. In a statement to the New York Times, Grewal said that Janssen’s marketing was designed to “embed its deceptions about the viability of long-term opioid use in the minds of doctors and patients.”

The complaint, filed on November 13, specifically mentions Nucynta (tapentadol) and Nucynta “Extended Release,” which are similar to Vicodin and Percocet and have a high potential for abuse. Nucynta received FDA approval in 2011. The National Institutes for Health warns that Nucynta “…may be habit-forming, especially with prolonged use.” In 2014, a professor from the Keck School of Medicine wrote about Nucynta for GoodRx.com, noting that Nucynta is a Schedule II controlled substance, a category that includes other highly addictive opioids such as oxycodone and fentanyl.

According to the 97-page complaint, Janssen is in violation of New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act and the False Claims Act and is guilty of creating a public nuisance. The lawsuit seeks civil penalties, punitive damages, and forfeiture of profits made from the sale of the drug in question. Under the New Jersey statute, Janssen’s alleged violations of the False Claims Act could make the company liable for three times the actual damages sought by the state.

This action by the State of New Jersey comes at a time when several state and municipal governments have been taking pharmaceutical companies to court. They seek to hold drugmakers accountable for an addiction crisis that claimed more than 72,000 lives in 2017 alone, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control – a 10 percent increase from the previous year. The reason is that the federal government has failed to take meaningful action, despite strong statements from the Trump Administration last year.  Lewis Nelson MD, head of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Rutgers University, says that so far, “…the federal government hasn’t been very effective at regulating the practices of these pharmaceutical companies.”

As a result of the federal government’s inaction, over 40 states have now taken legal action against drug companies in order to recover the costs of health care and treatment as well as drug enforcement. According to AG Grewal, New Jersey has spent an average of over $25 million a year since 2010 to cover the costs of opioid prescriptions for state employees.

Pharmaceuticals comprise one of the Garden State’s primary industries. Janssen’s parent company, Johnson & Johnson, is also one of the largest manufacturers of health care products in the world, with headquarters in New Brunswick. Between Johnson & Johnson and other New Jersey-based drug companies, the pharmaceutical industry employs approximately 120,000 workers. Payrolls represent nearly 8 percent of total worker income in the state. Grewal acknowledged New Jersey’s pharmaceutical industry is “the envy of the world,” but added, “We cannot turn a blind eye when a New Jersey company violates the law and threatens the lives of our residents. If they’re culpable, we’ll hold them accountable.”

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.