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S.C. attorney general sues 3 opioid distributors

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S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson has filed a lawsuit against three major opioid distributors, asserting that the companies contributed to opioid addiction problems in the state.

Wilson announced the suit against Cardinal Health, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen at a news conference Thursday, claiming they violated the state’s unfair trade practices act and created a public nuisance. The suit seeks injunctive relief and civil penalties.

“This lawsuit seeks to hold these companies responsible for their part in the opioid crisis,” Wilson said in a news release. “These distributors flooded the state with dangerously addictive drugs, devastating families across South Carolina.”

The lawsuit claims the three defendants had systematic failures in preventing diversion of prescription opioids in South Carolina and have faced repeated sanctions. The suit claims the companies should have known that the pills they were distributing in the state were not being used for legitimate purposes, based on the volume of opioids being sent to S.C.

Among specific charges, the suit alleges that Cardinal and McKesson failed to conduct oversight of the chain pharmacies that purchased most of their pills, and that AmerisourceBergen took no action in response to an internal investigation that recommended an overhaul of its compliance procedures.

The complaint was filed in the Court of Common Pleas Fifth Judicial Circuit.

In August 2017, Wilson filed suit against opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma, LP, Purdue Pharma Inc., and the Purdue Frederick Company. Since then, his office has been part of a multistate investigation against opioid distributors. Information gathered in that investigation led to the most recent lawsuit, according to the release.

Under state and federal law, opioid distributors must monitor, investigate, report and refuse to ship suspicious orders of opioids, Wilson’s office said, and have a legal duty to ensure that all prescription medications are distributed properly and are not diverted for illegal use.

Wilson’s office claims that the three companies listed in the suit made almost no effort to ensure the drugs were properly distributed and even shipped orders “that were deemed suspicious.”

“While we recognize that many South Carolinians have a legitimate need for opioid treatments, these companies did far more than merely distribute a legal product,” Wilson said. “Their failure to report and stop suspicious shipments of opioids into South Carolina resulted in tragic consequences to our communities.”

Wilson’s office said that between 2014 and 2018, the number of fatal drug overdoses in S.C. involving opioids increased 62%, from 504 to 816. As of January 2018, combined heroin and prescription opioid overdose deaths in the state exceeded the number of homicides for the previous three years. And from 2007 to 2014, South Carolina had 1,341 pharmacy robberies, a number that led that nation — far ahead of Texas’ 337 — and represented 28% of total pharmacy robberies nationwide.

The attorney general’s investigation also found that Charleston County had the highest average distribution rate of pain pills per person of any county in the U.S. from 2006 to 2012. During those years, an average of 248.3 pills per person per year were distributed in the county. In 2017, more than 300 million opioid pills were dispensed in South Carolina, nearly 60 times the state’s population. And between 2006 and 2014, South Carolina received the third highest concentration of pills per person per year of any state in the nation, according to Wilson’s office.

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