By Steve Gorman
(Reuters) – The state of Tennessee sued Walgreens on Wednesday, accusing the retail giant of fueling the state’s opioid epidemic by deliberately flooding the market with an oversupply of prescription narcotics, in violation of laws for drug trafficking. consumer protection and public nuisance.
According to the lawsuit, Walgreens used its position as one of the state’s largest pharmacy chains to dispense more than 1.1 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pills in Tennessee from 2006 to 2020, roughly equivalent to 175 tablets for every resident of the state. .
“The sheer amount of opioids that Walgreens released in Tennessee was unreasonable and highly suspect on the face of it,” said the 148-page lawsuit filed in the Knox County Circuit Court. “Walgreens has completely drenched the state of Tennessee with narcotics.”
Tennessee, home to nearly 7 million residents, is one of the hardest hit in the U.S. opioid crisis, documenting at least three opioid-related overdose deaths every day, according to the lawsuit.
“Walgreens did not inadvertently flood the state of Tennessee with opioids. Rather, the fuel Walgreens added to the fires of the opioid epidemic was the result of knowing—or deliberately ignorant—business decisions,” it said.
Walgreens has been the target of similar lawsuits filed by other jurisdictions.
In May, its parent company, Illinois-based holding company Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc, reached a $683 million settlement with Florida to resolve claims the pharmacy chain was exacerbating an opioid epidemic in that state. But Walgreens did not admit that he was guilty of the agreement.
“We will continue to defend against the unwarranted attacks on the professionalism of our pharmacists, dedicated health professionals who live in the communities they serve,” the company said in a statement emailed to Reuters on Wednesday.
“Walgreens has never manufactured or marketed opioids, nor have we distributed them to the pain clinics and ‘pill factories’ that fueled this crisis,” the company said.
According to the lawsuit, Walgreens effectively became part of an “illegitimately regulated substance sales program” by ignoring numerous signs of suspicious opioid practices.
The suit cited such “red flags” as a lack of individualized dosing; multiple prescriptions for the strongest available dose; many customers with the same diagnostic codes; high percentages of patients paying cash; customers often looking for early refills; and customers who travel long distances to fill prescriptions.
According to the lawsuit, Tennessee’s biggest leap in opioid distribution coincided with the years 2006 to 2014, when Walgreens operated as a wholesale distributor for its own pharmacies, occupying two rungs of the supply chain.
Walgreens pharmacies, which operated some 200 to 300 stores statewide, collectively purchased 795 million opioids from distributors during that time, the suit said. Some came from other wholesalers, but Walgreens “distributed” 81% of its own opioid supply at the time, according to the complaint.
A similar lawsuit filed by the City of San Francisco against Walgreens and two drug companies is now pending in a federal judge after an 11-week trial in which the two other companies reached a $58 million settlement with the city last month.
Separately, in November, a federal court jury ruled that Walgreens, along with fellow pharmacy chain CVS Health Corp and discount retail giant Walmart Inc, was liable for helping create public nuisances with an alleged stream of painkillers that ended up on the black market in two Ohio counties.
It is now up to a federal judge to decide what the companies should pay.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; additional reporting by Dietrich Knauth; editing by Kim Coghill)