Walgreens and CVS will pay nearly $10 billion for their involvement in fueling the opioid crisis. The settlements will help to “substantially resolve” various opioid-related lawsuits launched against them.
Walgreens and CVS are the two largest pharmacy chains in the United States by market share. The settlements, if finalized, would be the first nationwide deal reached with retail pharmacy companies, and could be among the largest settlements related to the opioid crisis. Walmart is also a target of the Justice Department over its involvement.
CVS announced in a release that it agreed in principle to pay about $4.9 billion to states and political subdivisions—such as cities and counties. It would also pay about $130 million to native tribes. The payments will be made over the next 10 years starting in 2023.
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In a release, CVS stated that the settlement “would fully resolve claims dating back a decade or more.” CVS added that it “will continue to defend against any litigation that the final agreement does not resolve.”
Meanwhile, Walgreens announced in a release it agreed in principle to pay about $4.95 billion to states, subdivisions, and tribes as part of settlement frameworks to resolve the opioid-related legal challenges. The payments would be made over 15 years.
The exact amount to be paid would depend on how many governments plaintiffs take up on the deals, and could be reduced if not enough sign on, the companies noted.
CVS and Walgreens both said the agreements are not final until all conditions are satisfied and non-monetary terms are finalized.
Opioids have been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the United States over the last two decades. They are now the leading cause of death for individuals between 18 and 45.
Both CVS and Walgreens said they have taken multiple steps to help combat the opioid crisis, including by starting educational programs and installing safe disposal units in stores and police departments for unused drugs. Both have also made life-saving opioid overdose reversal medication, such as Naxolone, available in their stores nationwide.
Since the 1990s, the United States has seen increasing waves of opioid abuse. The first wave hit in the 1990s, driven by prescription opioids. The second wave was driven by illicit heroin in 2010. The third wave, starting from 2013, is from illicit synthetic opioids, including fentanyl and tramadol.
Most opioid overdose deaths in the United States had initially involved prescription drugs. But as governments, doctors, and companies made them harder to abuse and obtain, people addicted to them increasingly switched to illicit heroin and an illicitly-produced version of fentanyl.
In recent years, opioid deaths have increased to record levels around 80,000 a year. Most of those deaths involve illicit fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid up to 50 times more potent than heroin, and up to 100 times stronger than morphine.
Manufacturers of illegal drugs add fentanyl to heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, and other drugs to make the drugs more powerful and cheaper to produce. Just two milligrams of fentanyl—equivalent to 10–15 grains of table salt—is considered a lethal dose.
The Chinese Communist Party has been using fentanyl trafficking as a form of chemical warfare against the United States.
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in its 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment report (pdf), China is “the primary source of fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances trafficked through international mail and express consignment operations, as well as the main source for all fentanyl-related substances trafficked into the United States.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in February proposed new opioid prescribing guidelines for doctors, in the hopes it could help improve individualized patient care to reduce instances of untreated pain, serious withdrawal symptoms, and addiction.