A federal jury found Tuesday that CVS, Walmart and Walgreens played a role in perpetuating the opioid epidemic in two Ohio counties. The verdict marks the first time that retail pharmacies have been deemed liable for the crisis.
“For decades, pharmacy chains have watched as the pills flowing out of their doors cause harm and failed to take action as required by law,” the Ohio counties’ lawyers said in a statement. “The judgment today against Walmart, Walgreens and CVS represents the overdue reckoning for their complicity in creating a public nuisance.”
The jury’s verdict involves a legal argument – that pharma companies and pharmacies contributed to a public nuisance – that may be used in subsequent opioid cases. That same argument, however, has recently been rejected by judges in California and Oklahoma.
Despite a recent drop in the number of opioid prescriptions, drug overdose deaths skyrocketed during the pandemic. Between April 2020 and April 2021, more than 100,000 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses. That represents a 28.5% increase from the year prior, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
The increase has been attributed to fentanyl and heroin use, as addicts turned to those drugs amid stricter regulation of opioids.
During the trial, the pharmacies argued that they prescribed just a fraction of the opioids in those counties, with hospitals and clinics more to blame. They also noted that prescribers rather than pharmacists were more responsible for creating demand.
The verdict arrives amid CVS Health’s ongoing restructuring around health services. Last week, the company announced it will close 900 stores during the next three years and bolster existing locations with additional primary care resources. They include HealthHUBs that will offer mental health services and diagnostic testing.
CVS and Walgreens said they will appeal the verdict.