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As the opioid epidemic cut a devastating path across the Rust Belt and Appalachia, drug manufacturers, distributors, pharmacists, and doctors all said they were following their rules and regulations. They also all pointed their fingers at each other or at patients.
But as Cuyahoga and Summit County, Ohio, prepare for a landmark civil trial against opioid manufacturers, doctors, and distributors, a federal judge recently unsealed data, and none of the major players look good.
According to the data, compiled by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, 76 billion opioid pills were distributed to pharmacies across the country from 2006 to 2012. During that time period, more than 100,000 people died from opioid overdoses. In Cuyahoga County’s Parma, three pharmacies alone accounted for 15.5 million doses.
More recent data still remains under seal by U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Ohio Dan Polster. He is presiding over nearly 2,000 consolidated lawsuits brought by counties, cities, and various plaintiffs against the industry, regarded as the largest civil lawsuit in U.S. history.
On average over that time period, each resident of Ohio received approximately 40 opioids. Since a vast majority of people did not require prescription opioids during that time, you can start to imagine how many some people were receiving.
The trial in the Cuyahoga and Summit lawsuit is expected to get underway in October, although Polster is encouraging the sides to come to a settlement before then.
But in a motion filed last week by attorneys for Summit and Cuyahoga counties, they allege that opioid distributors and manufacturers failed to monitor for “suspicious” orders as required by law. The motion says that these orders of “unusual size, frequency, or pattern” account for up to 80 percent of all opioid transactions in the counties.
The motion describes the defendants as turning “a blind eye and called themselves mere ‘deliverymen’… just like any street drug courier.” The motion cites company emails that shows sales reps and others knew of the dangerous nature of opioids.
In fact, one employee at a distributor disturbingly wrote to his sales rep: “"Keep 'em comin'! Flyin' out of here. It's like people are addicted to these things or something. Oh, wait, people are..."
Many lawsuits against the tobacco giants in the 1990s and after the turn of the century rested on similar arguments – that tobacco executives knew, despite their denials, that nicotine was addictive. And in the end, tobacco companies ended up agreeing to a $246 billion settlement.
Opioid distributors and manufacturers all say they were following the rules. But emails such as those above shine a light on how some really felt about the crisis as it was unfolding. Could Big Pharma end up shelling out more than Big Tobacco?