Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter opened the state’s case against consumer products giant Johnson & Johnson by saying its powerful painkillers have led to the “worst man-made public health crisis” in US history.

Two pharmaceutical giants are mired in historic lawsuits over the manufacture of alleged addictive painkillers that has fuelled an opioid epidemic causing the death of thousands of people in just one state in the United States.

Johnson & Johnson, one of the world’s largest drug manufacturers, is on trial in a lawsuit by the US state of Oklahoma, which claims it will cost more than US$13 billion over 20 to 30 years to abate the opioid epidemic.

Prosecutors accuse the firm of deceptively marketing painkillers and downplaying addiction risks, fuelling a so-called “opioid epidemic”.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter opened the state’s case against the consumer products giant and several subsidiaries by saying the powerful painkillers have led to the “worst man-made public health crisis” in US history.

The state alleges that for years, drugmakers have extensively marketed highly addictive opioids in a way that overstated their effectiveness and underplayed the risk of addiction, Associated Press reports.

Johnson & Johnson’s case is hugely significant as it is the first of 2,000 cases brought by state, local and tribal governments against pharmaceutical firms in the US to reach a trial – and could establish a precedent for damages paid to communities ravaged by opioids.

On Monday 27 May, the world’s biggest pharmaceutical company, Teva Pharmaceuticals agreed to pay the state of Oklahoma US$85 million to avert the current court case involving Johnson & Johnson. Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, agreed in March to pay US$270 million to Oklahoma to avoid the upcoming court case.

However, Teva Pharmaceuticals and Johnson & Johnson are front and centre in a massive lawsuit overseen by a federal judge in Cleveland, Ohio.

On average, 130 Americans die from an opioid overdose every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“This crisis is devastating Oklahoma,” Hunter said, adding that opioid overdoses killed 4,653 people in the state from 2007 to 2017.

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Lawyers for Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson said the products the company manufactured were not just legal but heavily regulated. Janssen lawyer Larry Ottaway told the judge that the drugs are important because they can help people manage debilitating pain.

“Serious chronic pain is a soul-stealing, life-robbing thief. It leads to depression. It leads to suicide. People can’t take care of their own basic functions,” Ottaway said. “You will hear from doctors, who practice right here in Oklahoma, some of those stories.”

Lawyers for the state of Oklahoma say they plan to use internal company documents, including call notes between sales representatives and doctors, to show how Janssen used misleading claims to influence physicians and patients to use opioids. The trial could bring to light documents and testimonies that show what the companies knew, when they knew it and how they responded.

The state’s lawyers also intend to call as witnesses family members of those who have died from taking the drugs. One such family member is Craig Box, whose son Austin was a 22-year-old standout linebacker for the Oklahoma Sooners when he died of a prescription drug overdose in 2011.