Walgreens helped fuel San Francisco’s opioid crisis, judge rules

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Walgreens helped fuel the opioid epidemic in San Francisco by shipping and dispensing the addictive drugs without proper due diligence, a federal judge ruled Wednesday in what attorneys suing the retailer called a “wake-up call for companies.”

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer said Walgreens “substantially contributed” to one of the nation’s deadliest public health crises by not stopping suspicious orders and dispensing drugs that were diverted for illicit use, causing a public nuisance in a major city that is among the hardest hit by addiction and overdoses. Walgreens, responsible for shipping nearly 1 out of every 5 oxycodone and hydrocodone pills distributed nationwide during the height of the opioid crisis, was the only drug company sued by San Francisco that did not settle, going to trial in April.

“Walgreens has regulatory obligations to take reasonable steps to prevent the drugs from being diverted and harming the public,” Breyer wrote. “The evidence at trial established that Walgreens breached these obligations.”

A trial will be held later to determine how much the company must pay the city to address the harms of the opioid crisis. The city does not yet have an estimated amount it will seek.

Walgreens spokesman Fraser Engerman said the company was “disappointed” with the decision and would appeal.

“As we have said throughout this process, we never manufactured or marketed opioids, nor did we distribute them to the ‘pill mills’ and internet pharmacies that fueled this crisis,” he wrote in an email. “We stand behind the professionalism and integrity of our pharmacists, dedicated healthcare professionals who live in the communities they serve.”

City Attorney David Chiu said the first bench trial finding Walgreens liable in the opioid epidemic “has national significance” in a years-long effort to hold drug distributors and pharmacies responsible. As the company has recently closed stores in the city, citing the effects of the drug epidemic, Chiu accused Walgreens of shifting blame.

“This is akin to an arsonist complaining about the fire,” he said at a news conference.

The verdict marks a second blow for the pharmacy giant — with thousands of other lawsuits by states, cities and counties remaining. Unlike the three largest drug distributors and drugmakers Johnson & Johnson and Teva, Walgreens has not reached a national settlement. It did not go through bankruptcy as manufacturers Purdue Pharma, Mallinckrodt and Insys have.

In a 112-page opinion, Breyer spelled out the specifics of the city’s drug crisis and the timeline of Walgreens’s response to drug misuse. Paul Geller, an attorney representing San Francisco and other communities across the country fighting drug companies, said the verdict “is anything but a run-of-the-mill legal ruling,” pointing to meticulous detail about the crisis in the city and the ways Walgreens contributed.

“I hope it is distributed as required reading in Big Pharma boardrooms throughout the country,” Geller said, “because his painstakingly detailed ruling ought to be a wake-up call for companies and help ensure this never…

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