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New trial asks whether big pharmacy chains bear any blame for the opioid epidemic


This afternoon in Cleveland, a federal jury trial opened to ask a basic question. Do the nation's big pharmacy chains bear any blame for the nation's deadly opioid epidemic? Critics say several pharmacy chains put customers at risk, selling tens of millions of highly addictive pain pills. CVS, Walgreens, Walmart and a regional chain called Giant Eagle say they did nothing wrong. And here, we want to note that the Walton Family Foundation, created by the founders of Walmart, is an NPR sponsor. Now, NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann is in Cleveland. He joins us now from the courthouse steps.

Brian, let's start with what the companies are facing in terms of accusations.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah. So Mark Lanier is the lead attorney, Audie, who's suing these firms on behalf of two Ohio counties in what's widely seen as a national test case. And this afternoon, Lanier laid out this really damning story, saying these pharmacy chains sold vast quantities of these dangerous pain pills without putting in place the monitoring and safety systems needed to protect patients. And Lanier said that failure made it possible for criminals and drug dealers to use pharmacies to feed a black market for opioid pills that stretched from Florida to Kentucky to Ohio. And he accused these companies today - and I'm quoting here - of turning a blind eye as the opioid crisis exploded and more and more people died from fatal overdoses.

CORNISH: But what are the regulations? I mean, what are these companies supposed to have done?

MANN: Yeah. These pills are highly regulated. According to the federal Controlled Substances Act, pharmacies are supposed to serve as kind of a last line of defense, keeping pills from going to the wrong people. So CVS, Giant Eagle, Walgreens and Walmart are required to have sophisticated systems in place to detect suspicious orders. And the accusation here, Audie, is that these firms failed to do that. They didn't hire the staff or put in the systems or just take the time needed to stop these prescriptions from going out the door.

CORNISH: So, Brian, what did these companies have to say in court?

MANN: So Kaspar Stoffelmayr, an attorney for Walgreens, told the jury today that these accusations just paint a totally inaccurate picture of their chain's values and ethics. In legal filings, these companies have said categorically they did nothing wrong here. They say their pharmacists tried to handle these medications carefully. And they put blame elsewhere - on doctors, on government regulators. So a key question for this jury will be whether the pharmacy chains bear any of the responsibility for this crisis. Even if jurors do give the company part of the blame, they could be on the hook for a lot of money.

CORNISH: I mean, how much? What's at stake?

MANN: Well, what's being argued here, Audie, is that these pharmacy chains created what's technically called a public nuisance by failing to control opioid sales. If the jury accepts that argument, these companies won't just be required to pay damages. They'll actually have to pay to solve the opioid crisis. And the cost of that, of course, could be massive. Paying for everything from emergency room costs to law enforcement and drug treatment, we're talking billions of dollars.

CORNISH: We've been hearing about so many opioid trials going on across the country. Can you put this one in context?

MANN: Yeah. You know, it's really interesting. After the prescription opioid boom began in the 1990s, a bunch of America's biggest Fortune 500 corporations got into the business. You know, it wasn't just Purdue Pharma. Prescription opioids meant huge profits. And we're seeing this tsunami of lawsuits filed by state and local governments arguing that corporations should be held liable for creating a massive public health crisis. And that's why this trial in Ohio is seen as a test case, you know, involving these pharmacy chains. The verdict here is going to help determine what kind of accountability corporations will face in thousands of opioid lawsuits all over the country.

CORNISH: That's NPR's addiction correspondent Brian Mann speaking to us in Cleveland, reporting there on the first ever federal opioid trial that involves the nation's big pharmacy chains.

Thanks so much.

MANN: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.