Four large U.S. drugstore chains have been accused of contributing to the great epidemic of addiction to opioid painkillers, which caused almost half a million deaths in two decades in the country.

Justly will face their first trial today, cited for more than 3,300 lawsuits, filed mainly by state and local governments that argue these distributors flooded their communities with excessive amounts of opioid pills between 1999 and 2019, Reuters reported Oct. 4. 

Those involved are Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc, CVS Health Corp, Walmart Inc, and Giant Eagle Inc pharmacies, charged by Lake and Trumbull counties in Ohio, which will have to answer to a federal jury in Cleveland.

These counties estimate they were flooded with 140 million pills between 2006 and 2012, equivalent to 400 and 236 pills per person, respectively. 

On the other hand, the opioid crisis was also influenced by doctors who prescribed large quantities of pills without medical justification, earning millions of dollars.

Initially, U.S. District Judge Dan Polster urged the parties to settle, but now if the jury finds the distributors guilty, Polster will set the value of the damages to be paid. One analyst estimates it could be about $15 billion.

“Even if there’s a judgment, the conduct that serves as the basis of liability could be deemed to constitute negligence, such that insurance would have to indemnify them,” says Holly Froum, a litigation analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence Bloomberg. 

The pharmacies sued argued that they had not broken the law. However, in July, the large distributors that supply them: McKesson Corp, Cardinal Health Inc, and AmerisourceBergen Corp-and manufacturer Johnson & Johnson offered to pay up to $26 billion for a friendly settlement with their plaintiffs. 

A previous settlement between the maker of the opioid painkiller OxyContin, Purdue Pharma LP, and its wealthy owners, the Sackler family, was for more than $10 billion, a win for people affected by the tragic effects of the dangerous drug. 

For its part, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believes that most heroin addicts got their start on prescription painkillers before switching to heroin, which is stronger and cheaper.

“People need to realize that drug addiction is a family disease, and everyone in the family is affected by it,” said Sharon Grover, who lost her daughter, Rachael Realini, addicted to prescription painkillers and then heroin.

Realini, a registered nurse and mother of two young children, had asked her mother for help, according to Grover. “We hugged, and I told her we would get through it,” she said.

However, it was not possible, and she was found dead in her home in April 2017 from a fentanyl overdose, an autopsy showed. No other drugs were found in her system. 

Heroin and synthetic fentanyl have largely replaced prescription painkillers, which have been harder to obtain as the industry has been forced to cut back on dispensing.

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