January 26, 2020

Drug companies and distributors lose court fight over pain pill data


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A federal judge on Monday required the release of detailed information about legal painkillers made and sold in the United States between 2006 and 2012 that could change the public’s understanding of the nation’s ongoing opioid abuse epidemic, which has killed nearly a quarter of a million people since it started in the 1990s.

In 2012, the data show that more than 12 billion pain pills were distributed in the United States – 25 times more than the roughly 500 million doses of morphine prescribed for pain, according to a Washington Post analysis.

Data covered by Judge Dan Polster’s ruling come from an exhaustive database maintained by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA, led by Acting Director Uttam Dhillon, resisted the release of data from the collection, called ARCOS, short for Automation of Reports and Consolidated Order System, saying criminals might use the information to better understand DEA drug-fighting methods.

The DEA’s parent organization, the U.S. Department of Justice, led by Attorney General William Barr, also fought against the release of data.

But in a massive lawsuit in Ohio in which 1,200 local governments sued to publicize the data, attorneys successfully argued that opening up the database would give a more accurate picture of the origin and spread of the lethal epidemic. Data, they said, would reveal how much distributors such as Irving, Texas-based McKesson Corp., Deerfield, Ill.-based Walgreens Co., Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart Inc., Dublin, Ohio-based Cardinal Health, Woonsocket, R.I.-based CVS Health Corp. and Chesterbrook, Pa.-based AmerisourceBergen Corp. were aware of the connection between overprescribing of opioid painkillers like oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentanyl and the subsequent surge of overdoses and deaths.

These distribution companies and the manufacturers who made most of the pain pills – Endo Pharmaceuticals plc, Actavis, and Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals (all based for tax purposes in Dublin, Ireland) lead the list of manufacturers – have denied any wrongdoing and have publicly said they intend to fight any lawsuits alleging responsibility. But they also fought against the release of the ARCOS data, saying it might give corporate rivals proprietary information about their business strategies.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, however, allege that the companies knew more than they let on, or even actively conspired to sell as many of the lucrative pills as possible, despite well-known safety risks, something the companies vigorously deny.

Those who sued think the massive trove of data, which will become available this week, might answer a question similar to one Senator Howard Baker asked about President Richard Nixon during Watergate. They want to know, “What did the drug companies know, and when did they know it?”

Information in the ARCOS database has never been made public before – it contains tracking data on all the 76 billion opioid pain pills shipped and sold in the country during those six years, with details sufficient to follow the path of medications to individual pharmacies in cities and even small towns.

The Washington Post’s preliminary look at the data showed that the states where the most pills per person were distributed were West Virginia, which got 66.5 pills per person, Kentucky (66.3) and South Carolina (58). The opioid-related death rate during that period was highest in West Virginia.

Further analysis by the Post showed McKesson distributed 14 billion pills during the six years covered by the data, closely followed by Walgreens, with 13 billion, and Cardinal Health, with 11 billion. SpecGx manufactured 29 billion of the pills tracked during the period, closely followed by Actavis, which made 26 billion of them.

Since so many powerful opioid pain pills were distributed over the past quarter-century in the United States, they were widely and easily available for misuse, leading to the ongoing epidemic of opioid addiction and hundreds of thousands of overdose deaths.

For more information and help on this subject go to: https://www.addictions.com/drug-alcohol-addiction/

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