Walmart files landmark US lawsuit to clarify opioid liability

US retail giant Walmart has filed a lawsuit against the US federal government, seeking clarity on the roles and legal responsibilities of pharmacists and pharmacies in filling opioid prescriptions.

The lawsuit was filed on Thursday 22 October, before a federal court in Texas.

The lawsuit names William Barr, the US attorney-general, and Timothy Shea, the acting administrator of the DEA, as defendants. The justice department and DEA have not so far responded to requests for comment by Emerging Risks.

In the legal action the US retailer claims its pharmacists and pharmacies are being put “in an untenable position” by the government.

The suit, which also names the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), says Walmart was acting pre-emptively to head off a separate civil suit that the Justice Department has been preparing to file against it.

Walmart claims the government’s rules are unclear and that pharmacists could not be expected to know when a prescription written by a licensed doctor should not be filled.

“Walmart and its pharmacists should not be held responsible for the government’s failures to address the opioid crisis,” the suit alleges.

Prescriptions for highly addictive opiate painkillers have reportedly escalated since the late 1990s. According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), more than 500,000 Americans have died of opioid overdoses -both prescription and non-prescription – since 1999.

The CDCP also estimates that the total “economic burden” of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year, including the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement.

Walmart accuses the DEA of seeking to pass blame for its failures.

It alleges the agency “authorized manufacturers to produce ever-increasing quantities of the drugs, and largely abandoned its most potent enforcement tools against bad actors”.

It also alleges that “nearly 70 percent of the doctors whose prescriptions” the government intends to challenge “maintain their DEA prescription privileges to this day.”

Earlier in the week, a West Virginia court ruled that Walmart must turn over information about federal and state investigations into its opioid-related practices to hospitals suing the company for allegedly contributing to the epidemic.

The US is not the only major economy facing a growing opioid crisis.

A recent report from the United Nations (UN) has pointed to a shocking fivefold increase in opioid use in the Indian subcontinent.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in its recently published ‘World Drug Report 2020’, “overall opioid use in India is estimated to have increased five-fold in comparison to earlier estimates from a survey carried out in 2004.”

A 2019 drug use survey in India estimated that nearly 1 per cent of the population, aged 10-75, had misused pharmaceutical opioids in the past year and that an estimated 0.2 per cent of the population (2.5 million people) were suffering from drug use disorders related to pharmaceutical opioids. Buprenorphine, morphine, pentazocine and tramadol are the most common opioids misused in India, the UNODC report stated.

The main opiate trafficking in India and countries in Central Asia is understood to flow from Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Pakistan.

The issue goes wider still. Opioid-related deaths have increased by about 20% across OECD countries since 2011,and have claimed about 400,000 lives in the United States alone. Opioid-related deaths are also relatively high in Canada, Estonia and Sweden.