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Drug Giant Ordered to Pay $572M in Oklahoma Opioid Case; Puerto Rico Now Under Tropical Storm Warning & Hurricane Watch; Poll: Biden, Warren & Sanders in 3-Way Race for Democratic Nomination. Aired 7- 7:30a ET

Aired August 27, 2019 - 07:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: This is a live look at Barbados, where Tropical Storm Dorian is already beginning to churn up the waves. We'll have the latest forecast in a live report from Puerto Rico just ahead.

[07:00:11] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: The other big story this morning is the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson ordered to pay $572 million to the state of Oklahoma in a landmark opioid trial.

The judge ruled that J&J intentionally played down the dangers and oversold the benefits of opioids. The trial is the first to hold a drug company accountable for America's opioid crisis.

So joining us now is Sabrina Strong. She's an attorney for Johnson & Johnson.

Ms. Strong, thank you so much for being here to respond to this. What is your response to this landmark ruling yesterday?

SABRINA STRONG, ATTORNEY FOR JOHNSON & JOHNSON: We disagree with the decision. We have sympathy for those who suffer from substance abuse, but Johnson & Johnson did not cause the opioid abuse crisis, and the facts and the law do not support the decision.

CAMEROTA: Well, the judge disagrees. The judge says that not only did you all contribute mightily to the crisis, at least in Oklahoma, that you did something so callous that it has to be held -- it has to be punished.

Here's what the judge said. Quote, "Defendants used the phrase 'pseudo addiction' to convince doctors that patients who exhibited signs of addiction, i.e. asking for higher and higher doses of opioids or returning to the doctor early before a prescription should have run out were not actually suffering from addiction but from the undertreatment of pain. And the solution, according to Johnson & Johnson's marketing, was to prescribe the patient more opioids."

What's your response to that claim?

STRONG: Those are not the facts. The concept of pseudo-addiction is recognized to this day in the label for FDA-approved medications in this class. And the issue there is for doctors to look at their patients and make an individualized decision with their patients as to whether or not they need additional pain medication or there's something else going on.

It's important to understand that these medications that the company manufactured are for people who suffer from chronic debilitating pain. And the way in which the company manufactured these medications and marketed them to doctors was extremely responsible. There are warnings on these medications, FDA-approved warnings; and it's up to the doctor, with their patients, to make decisions about who is appropriate for these medications.

And that's what the evidence at the trial showed, is that the company was extremely responsible in the way it manufactured and marketed these medicines in compliance with the FDA and DEA regulations.

CAMEROTA: Well, that's obviously not what the judge concluded. I mean, according to the way "The New York Times" broke it down here, I'll just tell you what they said, was so much more than just the manufacturing of these pills that Johnson & Johnson was responsible for.

So they said that "They had a broader role than just in their own sales. Johnson & Johnson developed a poppy strain that, when refined, became a central ingredient for drugs like oxycodone to be used. Johnson & Johnson was the top supplier of that base opioid."

OK. Here's where we get to how it went further. "The sales staff relentlessly promoted opioids generally, not just the company's own, in some 150,000 visits to Oklahoma doctors." I mean, it -- what it says is that it was a really reckless and irresponsible marketing plan that got the doctors to believe that this was sort of the answer.

STRONG: Those are not the facts that were presented at trial. Not one doctor in Oklahoma was called to the stand to testify that he or she was misled by anything that the company said or did. And not one patient or family member testified about any abuse or misuse associated with the company's medications.

The company manufactured two pain medications for patients who suffer from long-term debilitating pain. And the evidence is that those medications were rarely diverted, rarely abused and amounted to less than 1 percent of all the opioid medications prescribed in Oklahoma. That's true throughout the country. as well.

So there is simply no basis for the finding that the company is responsible for the opioid abuse crisis, which is a serious public health crisis in the state of Oklahoma and the country --


[07:05:03] STRONG: -- but it involves diversion of prescription medications, criminal activity. It is also largely driven by illicit drugs that are coming in from outside the country, from countries like Mexico and elsewhere.

CAMEROTA: Yes, but Ms. Strong, the reason that the opioid crisis is often driven by illicit drugs is because first people get addicted to the painkillers. First, they get addicted to the prescribed opioids, and when they can't get their hands on them anymore, they then have to divert to the heroin and the fentanyl that you're talking about.

And so if you don't think that Johnson & Johnson played any role, how do you explain the 47,000 deaths a year from the opioid scourge -- from the scourge of the addiction? How do you explain what's happening in the country?

CAMEROTA: It's a very complicated public health crisis, but it does not stem from Johnson & Johnson's medications.

We have to remember, nobody disputes that these are important, essential medications that patients need, and the evidence is that the company marketed and manufactured them responsibly.

And again, to the extent that diversion is an issue, these medications, we can't paint this with a broad brush. These medications, manufactured by Johnson & Johnson, were rarely diverted, rarely abused. This is the company that you want manufacturing these canines of medications. You want a responsible company doing it. That's what the evidence demonstrated here.

CAMEROTA: All right.

STRONG: And unfortunately, it's very easy to paint this with a broad brush, but we need to look at the facts of the case.


STRONG: And those are consistent with the facts of the case.

CAMEROTA: We know that you will be appealing this decision. Sabrina Strong, thank you very much for giving us Johnson & Johnson's side this morning.

STRONG: Yes. Thank you for having me.


BERMAN: All right. Joining us now is Brad Beckworth, the lead outside attorney who argued the case for the state of Oklahoma.

Brad, thank you so much for being with us this morning. You just heard Sabrina Strong from Johnson & Johnson make the case that it's up to the doctor to prescribe these medications, up to the doctor. Johnson & Johnson didn't give these drugs to the people. The doctors did. What's your response to that?

BRAD BECKWORTH, ATTORNEY FOR THE STATE OF OKLAHOMA: Well, first, Alisyn, I thought you did a great job with that. Sounds like you have a pretty good mastery of the facts here.

I've been in court with Johnson & Johnson and Mrs. Strong for the better part of two years, and it's really sad to me to see that even today, after a judge has found their company responsible, they're still perpetuating the same lies that this company has told for 20 years.

She said no doctor in Oklahoma ever came in and said that they were influenced by this company. That's not true. They had a prominent doctor here in Oklahoma that they paid $10,000 a day to come in and testify on their behalf.

What they didn't know is that doctor had given a speech in private here in Oklahoma a few years before, where he said, "Hey, here's what really happened. We all know what happened. They came in and told us to prescribe more opioids to anybody who was in pain and who asked for them, and so that's what we did. And we all know now that was wrong and you can't do that anymore."

BERMAN: But Brad --

BECKWORTH: Yes, sir.

BERMAN: -- the argument is that it's the doctors who actually do prescribing, not Johnson & Johnson. What's your response to that specific argument?

BECKWORTH: Doctors do the prescribing, but they do it based on the information that the drug companies gave. So let me give you an example of that.

So if you went to the doctor and said, "Hey, Doctor, I've got very bad lower back pain, and I've heard a lot about these opioids. And so what I want to know is, if I take them, am I at risk of becoming an addict? Is that something that could that happen to me?"

What your doctor should tell you, if Johnson & Johnson had told the doctor the truth, was "Look, these companies are claiming they're not addictive drugs, but we never did the research. We never did studies, despite what our own advisers told us to do. And so we don't know whether you have a 1 in 10 percent chance of being addicted or a hundred percent."

But that's not what they did. They went to every doctor and said, "Look, there is a less than 1 percent chance of becoming addicted if you use our drugs every day."

BERMAN: So Brad --

BECKWORTH: That was just a lie. Yes.

BERMAN: I was going to say, you base your case -- and a lot of people have looked at this -- on what some people consider to be a novel legal theory, which is public nuisance, the idea that the opioid crisis is a public nuisance that Johnson & Johnson is responsible for.

"The Wall Street Journal" wrote today that the judge who decided, Judge Balkman, "stretches the traditional public nuisance limitation with respect to property damage by claiming that J&J is liable, because its sales reps were trained in their Oklahoma homes, used company cars and sent messages to homes to thousands of Oklahomans via computers. By this standards, cell manufacturers could be liable for damages caused by distracted drivers."

[07:10:06] Again, so how do you respond to that? They're basically saying if this violates the public nuisance law, then any product manufacturer or distributor could violate the public nuisance law.

BECKWORTH: Well, public nuisance law in Oklahoma is different than in most states. Judge Balkman is an Oklahoma lawyer. He was a legislator here, and he's been involved in this case for more than two years.

What his opinion actually said was that Oklahoma law does not require the use of property to rise to the level of culpability. Our statute here says that if you engage in conduct that offends decency and affects a large, broad part of the community, then you can be held responsible.

No conduct could offend decency more than telling mothers and fathers that, if your child is injured in a sporting event, for example, and they start taking a deadly opioid, that they're not going to get addicted, when it's just a lie, and robs that child and that family of the life of their son or daughter. Nothing could offend decency more than that.

BERMAN: You -- You mention --

BECKWORTH: His statements about property -- go ahead, sorry.

BERMAN: I was going to say, you mentioned yourself that the public nuisance law in Oklahoma is slightly different than most other states. So do you see this case as the beginning of something much bigger around the nation? There's a big federal case taking place in Ohio in October here. Is this just the tip of the iceberg?

BECKWORTH: I think it is for Johnson & Johnson, for sure, and here's why.

For the last five, six years that people have been looking at this crisis, they've looked at other companies like Purdue Pharmaceutical, because the evidence that was out there was just about that company.

Until we took Johnson & Johnson to trial, no one knew how pervasive and systemic this company's role in being a root cause of the opioid crisis really was. They've hidden behind secret documents. They've hidden behind lawyers and closed boardrooms. And we revealed for the first time ever to everyone out there that Johnson & Johnson was behind over 60 percent of all the oxycodone that was ever produced in America, more than 60 percent of all the hydrocodone that is used here in Oklahoma and in the rest of the country.

So yes, I think this is a tip of the iceberg for Johnson & Johnson.

BERMAN: Brad Beckworth, thank you for joining us this morning. I know this case has been the result of a lot of work for you. And I know you've had some other issues in your own household over the last few months, so again, thank you for being with us this morning. We look forward to speaking with you again. STRONG: Thank you. We appreciate the work both of you are doing.

CAMEROTA: Now to some breaking news in the tropics. A tropical storm warning and hurricane watch have been issued for Puerto Rico and parts of the Dominican Republic as Dorian intensifies.

Many Puerto Ricans are not taking any chances. They are stocking up on supplies. Memories of Hurricane Maria, of course, still very fresh nearly two years later. A team of first responders from Miami is deploying to St. Croix to help with search-and-rescue efforts after Dorian passes.

So CNN meteorologist Chad Myers is tracking the storm for us. It looks like people are certainly taking this one seriously, Chad.

CHAD MYERS, CNN AMS METEOROLOGIST: You know, I hope so, although this isn't going to be any stretch of any computer's imagination to Category 3 or Category 4 storm. There's already so much damage on the ground from the old storm that this isn't going to take a lot to make a significant amount of damage, especially flooding.

This is a two-part storm. We're focusing today on Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. But this storm eventually gets into the Bahamas, and it will make a run at Florida. That's four and five days out.

But the storm right now, hurricane hunters in there, about a 50 mile- per-hour storm, becoming a 70 mile-per-hour storm as it makes a run at Ponce or maybe even to Punta Cana. That's the first part of the storm.

Then it gets into this water here near Nassau and turns left. Does it go to the Keys? Does it go to -- I don't know, all the way up to Myrtle Beach? We don't know that yet. But we're still not that far out. You can't trust the model 120 hours out. You can barely trust it 48 hours out, for that matter.

But they all are turning back to the left, and this water right here is 89 to 90 degrees. When that storm, if it's still a storm after it goes over the D.R. and Haiti and Puerto Rico, if it's still a big circulation, the intensity could rapidly go up as we see this storm into the Bahamas. We know it's going to rain a lot. We know there's going to be wind. But for now, we're watching the second part of the storm for the U.S., the first part for Puerto Rico.

BERMAN: All right. Chad Myers, stand by for us. I know we have another update coming at 8 a.m. We'll check back in with you.

We're on the ground in Puerto Rico, as well. The new governor there has declared a state of emergency. Three million Americans live on that island. CNN's Polo Sandoval live in San Juan.

[07:15:04] Polo, with the preparations, what are you seeing?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, there certainly is an expectation here on the island that Dorian will provide the current government that's been in place for less than a month with an opportunity to show its ability to respond to a potential emergency.

However, there certainly is this expectation that the impact here will be fairly minimal for many of the residents. But they're certainly not letting their guard down. As you mentioned, there's that emergency declaration that's in place.

The governor here also announcing that at least 360 shelters are -- will potentially open across the island, with an ability to bring in about 48,000 residents if it's necessary.

And also even hospitals across the island have been told to prepare for a potential emergency that could result from Dorian in the next few days.

But again, at this point, they're certainly -- folks here are watching and waiting to see what, if any, impact it will fear, because anytime they see any kind of disturbance in the tropics, that certainly brings about any potential memories of that storm back in 2017, that deadly storm.

And that's why what we're seeing in Puerto Rico are people preparing. They're getting the fuel. They're getting the provisions, because they are facing the possibility of at least a disruption in their normal life.

Back to you, John.

BERMAN: All right, Polo. Thanks so much for being there. Keep us posted. And again, the rebuilding not even done yet. That's the risk here. We're not going to see 120 mile-an-hour winds, but 75 mile-an- hour with the rain could be a serious issue.

CAMEROTA: But it sounds like, at the moment, people are doing the right thing. We'll see. Of course, we'll track that storm's progress.

BERMAN: All right. A new poll raising questions about the Democratic primary race. Is the Joe Biden lead in jeopardy?


[06:20:33] CAMEROTA: The 2020 race is heating up among the Democrats with a new poll that reveals a three-way race.

BERMAN: All right. Joining us now, CNN political analyst David Gregory; CNN White House correspondent Abby Phillip; and CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

Let's put the poll up on the screen so people know what we're talking about here. This is from Monmouth University, and it shows this three-way race at the top: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden.

This is the first poll that shows Biden as part of the pack rather than having a statistically significant lead, and there are people looking at this and saying, "Oh, my God, Joe Biden has fallen back." It's just one poll. The margin of error is 6 percent. So plus or minus 6 percent. So he could be winning by 12 points if you do the math there.

That said -- that said, David Gregory, this shows a race that might be closer than what people think; and if electability is your argument here for Joe Biden, probably a concern.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, it's why you actually have a campaign. Because people show up, and they take a candidate's measure, and they get beyond initial perceptions, which I think were that Biden has the highest name recognition and is the odds-on favorite to be able to beat Trump.

Well, now there's actually a debate about that. And a debate about what the future of the Democratic Party is, which I think was right, especially after 2016 and Hillary Clinton's experience, and the way that she defeated Bernie Sanders.

I think in any race, there's always two -- and I say there's two candidates, potentially, on the Democratic side, and maybe more, but certainly multiple lanes. There is the moderate lane, however you define that, the kind of frontrunner moderate electability, viability. And then there is a robust progressive lane, and right now, I really think that's Warren and Sanders. And she's generating enthusiasm. You can't deny it.

CAMEROTA: Let's see what our resident contrarian thinks about this. Jeffrey Toobin, you don't put much stock in this poll. Too small a sample?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: It's a rinky-dink poll. I mean, it is 90 -- 298 people for a national poll is a really small poll. That's why the margin of error is so big, as you mentioned, Berman

But what I do think is more significant than -- than this one poll is Elizabeth Warren getting 15,000 people at a rally. What was it, Portland, Seattle?

BERMAN: Seattle, 15,000; or 12,000 in Minnesota.

CAMEROTA: Seattle. Last week was 12,000.

TOOBIN: I mean, these -- big crowds matter. You know, one thing that Donald Trump, Barack Obama, and George W. Bush all have in common is they all won, and they got people out to see them.

I mean, you know, that is a sign that there is something going on in the country, and Elizabeth Warren is the only candidate on the Democratic side who is drawing those sorts of crowds. That, to me, matters more than one poll.

BERMAN: Kamala Harris in her announcement speech had a giant crowd in Oakland.

TOOBIN: Once. BERMAN: Hasn't replicated it since. And President Howard Dean, you know, was on the phone for you, talking about giant crowd size.

TOOBIN: Correct.

BERMAN: But I agree. I agree that what you see is enthusiasm. You see organization. It shows a campaign that is in high gear. And to ignore it, I think you do at your own peril.

Abby, I want to introduce something new to the conversation here, and I think it plays into everything we're talking about, which is the Biden campaign moments ago released a new ad that's going up in Iowa. We're told this is a big buy, multiweek buy, six figures in Iowa, 60 seconds. And the issue is health care, so listen to this.


JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: My son Beau was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only months to live. I can't fathom what would have happened if the insurance companies had said for the last six months of his life, "You're on your own." The fact of the matter is health care is personal to me. Obamacare is personal to me.


BERMAN: It seems to me, Abby, there are a couple things here that are very important. No. 1, it's a big buy in Iowa, which shows how important the Biden campaign thinks Iowa is.

And then the second thing is the subject, health care. That is of huge interest to me, because that might be the issue he most wants to differentiate himself from Elizabeth Warren on.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And it might be the issue that he actually has the most trouble on in a state like Iowa with a primary audience, in particular.

I mean, Joe Biden's health care message is a general election message. It is, basically, "I'm not going to go too far to the left, because I don't think that that is going to be a strategy that will -- that will help me appeal to the broad middle swath of the country."

[07:25:04] But in the primary, it could very well be a liability. That's why you heard Jill Biden in -- in that now-infamous clip, telling -- telling those undecided voters, "Hey, even if Joe isn't all that great for you on health care, vote for him anyway."

So this ad is an acknowledgment that that's a point that he needs to shore up with voters.

But to your point, I mean, also it really just highlights how important Iowa is for Joe Biden. And one thing that you do hear from some of the other campaigns -- and I think what this poll maybe also illustrates -- is that even though Joe Biden is the guy to beat in this primary right now, a lot of the other campaigns believe that support is kind of soft, and that there is room for him to fall. And I think the Biden campaign is trying to hang onto their lead in

Iowa, trying to stay in -- at the front of the pack there, because if they show signs of weakness early in this campaign, I think the other campaigns are going to see blood in the water. And it's going to get a little bit tougher for them as they go along.

GREGORY: Let's remember on health care. It's a very hard issue. And I don't think that voters necessarily, in the main, vote on issues in their particulars.

But it's a bigger issue in the sense of, first of all, it's about Obama, who won in Iowa and the caucuses and became a viable candidate after doing so. So he's wrapping himself in the cloak of Obama.

And this is a big part of Biden's success in that administration, that he can say, "Look, let's build on this." But it may be a liability. He may not be far to the left enough on health care. He wants to stake that ground. I mean, we're going to see on a debate stage next month where Biden has to take the fight to Elizabeth Warren to say, "Look, getting rid of private insurance is too far. It's too extreme. Not only is it wrong, but you're going to lose to President Trump if that's your position."

So I think he's got to set the -- the groundwork to make that kind of argument. I mean, there's no other choice. He doesn't agree with her and with Bernie Sanders on this, and others, and I think that's what he's preparing to do.

BERMAN: And --

PHILLIP: Also note that there are not almost any specifics in that ad, you know. I mean, it's a very vague ad, and I think it's because he's just trying to say, "Hey, I really care about this. This is important to you."


PHILLIP: "It's important to me, too."

GREGORY: "And we got this done, and we can do more. But we got this done."

TOOBIN: And I agree about the centrality of health care. What I wish is that one candidate would explain to me how they plan to get any of these plans through if Mitch McConnell is the majority leader in the Senate, as he is likely to be, and where there will certainly not be 60 votes for Democrats in the Senate.

I mean, this notion that you could just come up with these plans to change the world when the Republicans are -- will certainly be a very important force, at least in the Senate. You know, can we have some explanation?

CAMEROTA: Well, what does Bernie Sanders say about that, since he's been fighting this fight now for years?

BERMAN: It's a revolution. He says a revolution.


CAMEROTA: Prepare for the revolution.

GREGORY: And -- and Bernie Sanders doesn't level with the American people about the taxes that would be involved with his health care plan. He says, "Yes, but you're going to pay less for premiums, so it will work out."

But to Jeffrey's point, I think Elizabeth Warren is doing something very smart here. She's also emphasizing to Democratic donors, "Look, I've campaigned around the country for Democrats who have been successful, and I will do it again. I will be more than just my self- interest. I can actually help the party win and take back the Senate so we can get this business done."

BERMAN: I will note, there have been some signs that those candidates pushing Medicare for all, the furthest left version of that, have tempered their argument slightly over the last few weeks. It does --

CAMEROTA: Bernie Sanders for one.

BERMAN: Bernie Sanders for one --

TOOBIN: Kamala Harris has backed away from it, yes.

BERMAN: So I'm not quite sure that this hurts Biden by positioning himself in the middle. It may be that they see a lane here, and they want to differentiate Joe Biden with Elizabeth Warren on that debate stage, on this very issue in this very way.

TOOBIN: True. But, you know, I -- I think the issue of Medicare for all is such a profound thing that, you know, it would be such a transformation of American life.

I mean, you know, was it 80 million people get their health care from private insurance? And every, basically, full-time employee gets it. To change that, I mean, that is -- that is a scary thing to a lot of people --

BERMAN: Which is what Joe Biden is going to say.

TOOBIN: -- which is what Biden has -- And Biden has a real argument there.

BERMAN: And if he's not directly saying it in that ad, I think that's subtext.

TOOBIN: And we'll certainly hear that in next week's debate.

CAMEROTA: So speaking of next week's debate, David, we have the full screen of the people who have made it. They only have until tomorrow. Only -- I mean, if somebody else is going to hit the metrics, tomorrow is the deadline. And so what happens after the debate, after this next debate? I mean, then do we see a big winnowing of the field? Or can a lot of people continue to go on?

GREGORY: I think we will, and I think we should. I think it's really -- it's going to be better for the Democratic Party if they start winnowing and winnowing fast.

You know, I've really felt that there's -- there's the Biden moderate lane. Maybe kamala Harris is in that. There's a more progressive lane. I for a while, thought Pete Buttigieg kind of stood on his own. But he appears to be fading a little bit. I think's got strength, more strength than the others.