First Jury Verdict in Opioid Crisis Rules Retail Pharmacies Partly to Blame

cvs health, walgreens, walmart to pay damages to ohio counties

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Pharmacy chains played a part in the opioid crisis, a jury decided. Plaintiffs in the case, which was heard in Ohio, claim that pharmacy chains ignored opioid crisis red flags for years. Opioid use by individuals without a prescription was also a factor.

Close up of medication pills in elderly man's hand
The release of dopamine in the brain’s reward circuit is integral to the neural mechanisms of addiction. Photo By Africa Studio / Shutterstock

Two counties in Ohio successfully brought a case against CVS Health, Walgreens, and Walmart, charging them with a public nuisance for their roles in the opioid epidemic. Plaintiffs claimed that the pharmacies ignored suspicious opioid orders at both the local level, with pharmacies, and at the corporate level.

It’s a landmark case for several reasons. Among them, it’s the first jury verdict in the opioid crisis in general and the first trial in which the retail side of the drug industry has been held accountable for their role in the crisis. Previously, all three corporations—as well as Rite Aid—had settled out of court for similar complaints.

Despite this victory for the state of Ohio, it’s only one factor in the opioid crisis. In his video series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media, Dr. Roy Benaroch, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Emory University School of Medicine, said that tackling the addiction epidemic starts at home.

Crisis Management

“Though reasonable steps to prescribe fewer opioids can help, we know the threat of addiction comes mostly from diversion—that is, opioids used by people other than the prescribed patient,” Dr. Benaroch said. “Tackling that problem can start with prescribing fewer pills, and especially fewer pills to people who don’t need them. We need to empty out our medicine cabinets, too, and safely get rid of these pills.”

Furthermore, he said, “pill mills” and prescription-happy doctors who are prescribing outside of the practices of good medical care should be shut down. On the contrary, doctors need to make sure that they’re treating pain the proper way and not immediately sending patients to the pharmacy. For example, Dr. Benaroch said that chronic pain shouldn’t be treated with opioids, at least in isolation.

“We also need to identify and treat the mental illness that commonly contributes to pain, or makes pain very difficult to deal with—things like depression and anxiety disorders and alcoholism, all of which contribute to chronic pain,” he said. “These are not conditions best treated with opioids.”

According to Dr. Benaroch, doctors should also treat addiction as addiction. He claimed the most effective treatment to taper off of addictive drugs is to use medically prescribed, long-lasting opioids and other medications. This will also get people off street drugs, which are far more dangerous.

The Problem with Addiction

“But addiction therapy carries a stigma, and some people feel uncomfortable with the idea that people with addiction will be getting their drugs from a doctor,” he said. “Still, when medicines are used properly, they can reduce cravings safely and allow a person to work and live their lives, without constantly worrying about withdrawal. We’ve got good treatments for addiction, but we need to have the will to fund these programs to get people the help they need.”

Finally, Narcan—the drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose and is used by paramedics—should be available everywhere, Dr. Benaroch said. However, he pointed to a CBS News article that profiled two sheriffs. The first sheriff said Narcan subjects his deputies to danger and has no effect on the death toll, while the other said it’s his deputies’ duty to carry it and save lives. The former saw a 33% spike in overdose deaths in 2016, while the latter saw it reduced.

Both counties were in Ohio, the same state as the recent jury verdict against retail pharmacies.

“The opiate crisis is complicated, but when it comes down to it, it’s not really about drug companies and doctors and pills—it’s about people, suffering people, and their families, and their futures,” Dr. Benaroch said. “We’re going to need to work together to get pain sufferers the help they need while preventing new addictions from developing. At the same time, we can’t just turn our backs on people suffering from addiction.

“Blaming them is not the answer.”

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily