Opioids can relieve pain, but they can also become addictive very quickly. Abuse is rampant in the United States. Are the big pharmacy chains partly to blame?
The large US pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens have agreed to an expensive settlement in the legal dispute over alleged complicity in the country’s painkiller crisis. According to the preliminary compromise, CVS would pay $5.3 billion and Walgreens $5.0 billion, the companies announced on Wednesday. According to US media reports, Walmart is also facing a $3.1 billion settlement.
States, municipalities, cities and Native American tribes in the US accuse the corporations of exacerbating the devastating opioid abuse by lack of control over the trade in painkillers. CVS and Walgreens deny this, claiming that they only sold pills prescribed by doctors. The draft settlement does not contain an admission of guilt by the companies.
High potential for abuse
Opioids are partly synthetically manufactured drugs with, among other things, pain-relieving properties. However, they harbor dependency risks and a high potential for abuse. According to the CDC, the opioid epidemic has killed nearly half a million people in the United States over the past two decades.
Most US lawsuits are directed against manufacturers and wholesalers of painkillers – above all the now insolvent Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma. The largest US settlement to date, worth up to $26 billion, involved drug wholesalers McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health and drugmaker Johnson & Johnson in 2021.
However, operators of large pharmacy chains such as CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid and Walmart are now under a lot of legal pressure. In August, the companies were ordered to pay a total of $650 million in a landmark opioid lawsuit in Ohio. The comparisons are controversial. The payments are spread over many years and, according to critics, are disproportionate to the costs of the opioid crisis.