Five major pharmacies—CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid, CVS Health and Walmart—worked with major drug manufacturers to develop opioid painkillers that were more effective at suppressing pain, according to the findings of a jury’s decision in a case filed by the relatives of three people who died of a drug overdose in the Bronx borough of New York City.
The ruling on Friday in the suit, brought by the family of Priscilla Barragán, 36, Ashley Tran, 23, and Alejandro Antuna, 37, further exposes the role that pharmacists and health professionals have played in fueling the nation’s largest drug epidemic in recent memory.
CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid and Walmart have faced a string of personal injury lawsuits from relatives of people who died of overdose from prescription drugs that they acquired without a prescription, and the five companies’ various trade associations have all opposed the latest effort in the Bronx trial.
But this trial’s ultimate ruling is unlikely to be the last time the pharmaceutical corporations will be forced to pay up for policies and practices that put the public at risk.
In 2015, 45,000 people died of a drug overdose in the United States, most of them from prescription painkillers. The Trump administration has been waging a war on drug overdose deaths and recently proposed legislation that would allow the Secretary of Health and Human Services to approve generic forms of prescription drugs without FDA approval.
Experts say that the FDA should be considering federal regulation, not sweeping bans on new prescription drugs.
The family of the three victims in the Bronx case, however, was able to convince a New York state court in 2017 that the New York State Division of Narcotics Enforcement and the New York State Department of Health were at fault for failing to properly regulate the distribution of prescription drugs. (The DEA, which oversees the production and sale of opioids in the United States, had no jurisdiction over a chain of drug stores in the city’s SoHo neighborhood, a primary distribution point for drugs like oxycodone.)
The families’ lawsuit is one of over 1,700 individual cases related to opioids in the courts system, according to the non-profit legal organization Public Citizen.
Just last week, in a case about painkiller addiction, a New York City court ruled that Johnson & Johnson, the pharmaceutical giant, was liable for the opioid addiction of a worker who got addicted to the company’s opioid drug Relpax.
The idea of federal regulations governing the supply of prescription painkillers has been around for decades. But the practice has largely been used to target manufacturers of illegal drugs, and not drugmakers that sell effective painkillers. Critics of the idea say that it’s not realistic to shut down the private, for-profit companies that supply a necessity in the treatment of certain illnesses, and that not every physician prescribing these drugs is reckless.
But the Drug Enforcement Administration, which is tasked with overseeing the manufacturer, has been frustrated that it is not allowed to stop manufacturers of legal opioids from packaging them in the pills’ original format. In 2017, the agency’s leadership actually met privately with Donald Trump Jr. to discuss a regulatory initiative.
Drug companies, backed by trade associations that vigorously oppose the idea of a legal prescription drug regulation, have argued that they already receive sufficient scrutiny from the FDA for promoting medicines for uses they were not meant for, and that they are under constant pressure to monitor the pharmacies where they sell their products.