Pharmacy operators CVS, Walmart and Walgreens must pay a combined $650.6 million to two Ohio counties to address the damage done by the opioid epidemic, a federal judge ruled Wednesday. Judge Dan Polster found that these pharmacies were guilty of “public nuisance” by ignoring the abusive consumption of these products in the counties of Lake and Trumbull.
The order by US District Judge Dan Polster in Cleveland marks the first time pharmacy chains have been ordered to pay money in an opioid lawsuit. It comes after a jury last November concluded that the companies helped create a public nuisance in Lake and Trumbull counties by over-supplying addictive pain pills, many of which found their way onto the black market.
The money will be used to finance education and prevention programs, and reimburse the counties for the cost of managing the crisis, although the sum is just one third of what is needed to face the economic consequences of the epidemic.
Walmart, the largest retail chain in the country, announced Wednesday that it plans to appeal the ruling, arguing the trial was “riddled with remarkable legal and factual mistakes.” Walgreens will also appeal. CVS Pharmacy said their pharmacists did nothing more than fill the prescriptions of doctors, who were prescribing legal medicines approved by US health authorities.
The US opioid epidemic has caused more than 500,000 overdose deaths over two decades, according to government data. The prescription of these highly addictive opioid derivatives as common painkillers led to overdoses and acted as a gateway to stronger narcotics such as fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s more powerful than morphine. More than 3,300 lawsuits have been filed, mostly by local governments, accusing drugmakers, distributors and pharmacy chains of fueling the crisis.
Last summer, the aforementioned chains, plus the drugstore company Rite Aid, were ordered to pay $26 million to two counties in the State of New York. In the Ohio case, Rite Aid and another defendant chain reached financial settlements with counties to avoid going to trial. A year ago, the giant Johnson & Johnson and three major distributors signed a $26 billion settlement with multiple states to settle thousands of lawsuits. In other states, such as Oklahoma and California, however, judges have rejected the argument that the plaintiffs violated “public nuisance” laws.
Purdue Pharma, which generalized the use and prescription of opioids to treat chronic pain drug with the drug Oxycontin, has been at the center of the lawsuits. The drug was initially aimed at cancer patients, but the company later marketed it as a pain reliever for any chronic complaint, earning a fortune in the process. A federal judge last December threw out the $4.5 billion settlement that was supposed to settle a years-long dispute against the Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma.
Neither the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) nor local counties believe the epidemic is over. In 2021, overdose deaths, which have increased sixfold since 1999, exceeded 100,000, the highest figure in history, according to CDC data.