A county in West Virginia is suing 10 wholesale drug distributors — including subsidiaries of Walmart, Walgreens, Rite Aid, and CVS — alleging the companies flooded the state with prescription painkillers, contributing to an epidemic of opioid addiction and overdoses.
Cabell County, which includes the West Virginia city of Huntington, near the state’s western border with Ohio, has a population of about 96,000, but the lawsuit alleges the drug distributors sold local retailers nearly 40 million doses of prescription opioids from 2007 to 2012.
The complaint, filed Thursday in West Virginia federal court, says the companies “opened Pandora’s Box and released a seemingly endless supply of prescription opiates into Cabell County and fed the epidemic while making billions of dollars.”
The other companies named the lawsuit are Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, Kroger, McKesson, and H.D. Smith, all among America’s largest wholesale pharmaceutical distributors. They have not yet responded to the allegations in court.
The companies, which sell popular painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin, have repeatedly been blamed by states and local governments for fueling America’s opioid crisis. More than 33,000 people died in 2015 from overdoses caused by prescription pills and illicit drugs such as heroin, and West Virginia has the highest rate of fatal overdoses in the country, with 41.5 deaths per 100,000 residents.
Some of the companies named in the Cabell County lawsuit have been sued before in connection with the opioid epidemic. The state of West Virginia sued Cardinal Health in 2012 and received a $20 million settlement earlier this year after alleging that the company knowingly sold millions of pills to shady pharmacies that doled out the medication without proper oversight. The city of Huntington also filed its out suit against Cardinal Health, McKesson, and AmerisourceBergen in January 2017. Elsewhere, major drug companies such as Pfizer and Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, have paid out multi-million dollar settlements over accusations that they misled the public about the risks of taking painkillers.
Cabell County’s 38-page complaint says the drug wholesalers “breached their duty to monitor, detect, investigate, refuse and report suspicious orders of prescription opiates,” citing repeated violations of DEA rules. The suit seeks unspecified “economic” and “punitive” damages from the companies, and alleges the companies routinely flouted the law because they knew their profits would outweigh the cost of penalties imposed by the government.
“The epidemic still rages because the fines and suspensions imposed by the DEA do not change the conduct of the wholesale distributor industry,” the lawsuit alleges. “They pay fines as a cost of doing business in an industry which generates billions of dollars in annual revenue.”