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Oklahoma, Johnson & Johnson face off in first opioid crisis trial

Nate Raymond

May 28 (Reuters) - Drugmaker Johnson & Johnson is set to face trial in a multibillion-dollar lawsuit by the state of Oklahoma aimed at pinning the blame for the opioid epidemic on its painkiller marketing.

Lawyers for the state and J&J are scheduled to appear on Tuesday in a state court in Norman, Oklahoma, to deliver their opening statements at the start of the first trial to result from more than 2,000 similar lawsuits against opioid manufacturers nationally.

The lawsuits by state and local governments seek to hold the J&J and other companies responsible for a drug abuse epidemic that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says led to a record 47,600 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2017.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter alleges J&J, along with OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma LP and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd, carried out deceptive marking campaigns that downplayed opioids' addictive risks while overstating their benefits.

Hunter alleges J&J, which marketed the painkillers Duragesic and Nucynta, was "the kingpin behind this public health emergency," growing and importing the raw materials other drugmakers used for their products.

The state claims the companies' actions created an oversupply of painkillers and a public nuisance that will cost $12.7 billion to $17.5 billion to remedy.

Oklahoma resolved its claims against Purdue in March for $270 million and against Teva on Sunday for $85 million, leaving only J&J as a defendant in the nonjury trial before Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman.

"We believe our evidence is persuasive and compelling with regard to their legal responsibility for thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of addictions in the state," Hunter said.

J&J denies wrongdoing, arguing that its marketing efforts were proper and that the state cannot prove it caused the opioid epidemic given the role doctors, patients, pharmacists and drug dealers played.

"We acted responsibly in providing FDA-approved pain medications, and we are ready for trial," J&J said in a statement on Sunday.

But J&J also said it was open to an "an appropriate resolution" that would avoid the expense and uncertainty of a trial.

The case is being closely watched by plaintiffs in other opioid lawsuits, particularly the 1,850 cases consolidated before a federal judge in Ohio, who has been pushing for a settlement agreement ahead of an October trial.

Some plaintiffs' lawyers have compared the opioid cases to litigation by states against the tobacco industry that led to a $246 billion settlement in 1998.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Scott Malone and Jonathan Oatis)