30th November 2021
By Emily Ledger

Three pharmacy chains were found to be responsible for their role in the reckless distribution of opioid-based painkillers in two Ohio counties in a verdict which could set a precedent for similar cases around the US.

CVSHealth, Walgreen Co., and Walmart Inc. were taken to court by the governments of Lake and Trumbull counties who claimed the pharmacies could have stopped a flood of dangerous painkillers from entering circulation in their communities.

Prescription opioids were found to be responsible for hundreds of overdose deaths and a cost to each county of around $1 billion. According to AP News, the attorney, who spoke on behalf of the county governments compared the pharmacies’ dispensing of the dangerous drugs to a gumball machine.

Mark Lanier, an attorney for the counties, stated: “The law requires pharmacies to be diligent in dealing drugs. This case should be a wake-up call that failure will not be accepted.

“The jury sounded a bell that should be heard through all pharmacies in America.”

But the pharmacies – who will appeal the decision – maintain that they have policies in place to stem the flow of opioid medications when their pharmacists have concerns. According to the pharmacies, these policies included notifying the relevant authorities about suspicious orders from doctors.

Spokespersons for the pharmacies also claim that it was the doctors themselves who determined how many pills were prescribed for legitimate medical purposes.

However, these policies were evidently not effective in protecting the residents of these two counties – and many more around the country – from the potential harms of opioids. Around 80 million prescription painkillers were found to have been dispensed in Trumbull County alone between 2012 and 2016 – working out at around 400 pills for every resident.

Nonetheless, Walmart said in a recent statement that the counties’ attorneys were suing “in search of deep pockets while ignoring the real causes of the opioid crisis – such as pill mill doctors, illegal drugs, and regulators asleep at the switch – and they wrongly claimed pharmacists must second-guess doctors in a way the law never intended and many federal and state health regulators say interferes with the doctor-patient relationship.”

Fraser Engerman, a spokesperson for Walgreen, also criticised the counties’ attorneys and the case, stating that it was an unsustainable effort “to resolve the opioid crisis with an unprecedented expansion of public law.”

Engerman continued to point out that the company “never manufactured or marketed opioids nor did we distribute them to the ‘pill mills’ and internet pharmacies that fuelled this crisis.”

Kaspar Stoffelmayr, an attorney for Walgreens, pointed to a rise in physicians prescribing medications such as oxycodone and hydrocodone in recent years. He said, “pharmaceutical manufacturers tricked doctors into writing way too many pills.”

Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin – a brand of oxycodone – pleaded guilty last year to enabling the supply of drugs “without legitimate medical purpose”. However, in a deal with the US Department of Justice, the firm was cleared of some of the most serious claims against them.

Years of investigation found that Purdue Pharma and other drug manufacturers encouraged the over-prescription of opioids for financial benefits. This was found to have played a key role in the ongoing overdoses and cases of addiction that characterise the opioid epidemic and continues to strain public health and policing resources across the US.

The opioid epidemic has taken the lives of almost half a million people in the US in the two decades from 1999 to 2019. Health care providers and researchers continue to look for alternative treatment options to reduce and/or replace the ongoing prescription of opioid-based painkillers.

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