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Federal Judge In Ohio Releases Trove Of Opioid Sales Records


The pharmaceutical industry is facing more revelations about its role in the opioid epidemic that's killed more than 200,000 Americans. A federal judge in Ohio released a trove of drug sale records along with more internal company documents. They show just how hard the industry pushed to boost sales of highly addictive painkillers.

North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann is with us this morning. He has covered this story closely. Thanks for being here, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So we have seen these court cases around the U.S. really pulling back the curtain on the drug industry and how it contributed to this epidemic. What is new in these documents?

MANN: Well, first, I think it's the scale. We have incredibly detailed data now showing drug companies made and sold more than 10 billion opioid pain pills a year in the U.S. And sales grew even as these overdose deaths soared. It wasn't just one or two companies doing this. It took an entire industry to market and distribute that many pills - from generic drug makers like Mallinckrodt to pharmacy chains on people's corners like Walgreens and CVS.

MARTIN: So over the weekend, we got a look at more internal emails that were sent by these drug executives at these companies. What were they saying about the dangers of these medications?

MANN: Well, drug executives clearly knew very early the risks, but they were committed to boosting sales and profits. In 2009 when we were already deep into this deadly epidemic, one top official at Mallinckrodt joked in an email about selling opioids to people who were addicted, comparing prescription pain pills to junk food. Just like Doritos, he wrote, keep eating. We'll make more.

MARTIN: Wow. So that's what happened, right? The documents show that the companies did just keep making more. More than 70 billion opioid pills were sold across the U.S. from 2006 to 2012 - through that time period. And during that time, I mean, I guess the question is was there any pushback from inside the industry? Was there anyone raising their hand saying, hey, maybe we shouldn't be pushing this high - these highly addictive drugs?

MANN: In fact, what these civil lawsuits claim is that companies kept selling opioids in huge quantities even when buyers seemed to be really suspicious. One example here, court documents just released in Ohio show the drug distributor McKesson delivering more than 3 million doses of hydrocodone pills to one small pharmacy in Baltimore, Md. It's a lot of pills. And internal emails show company executives at McKesson raising concerns about the lack of proper safeguards. But the pills just kept flowing.

MARTIN: This must be a PR nightmare for the drug industry. I mean, how are these companies responding?

MANN: Yeah, some opioid makers have just begun to settle. More than $2 billion have been paid out so far this year. But most companies deny any wrongdoing. Mallinckrodt sent NPR a statement distancing itself from that email where their executive compared opioid pills to Doritos. They say it was an outrageously callous email. That's their words from someone who hasn't worked for Mallinckrodt for a long time.

Other companies we've spoken to point out they were filling prescriptions written by doctors. And they also say this market is highly regulated. The federal government knew about these sales while they were happening.

MARTIN: So what does that mean, though, Brian? If the federal government, in the form of the DEA, knew that companies were selling a suspicious number of opioid pills and people were dying from overdoses, why didn't the agency step in?

MANN: I think this is one of the big questions that emerged from this week's document dump. The federal government has fined companies repeatedly. But critics say until very recently, regulators did little to actually slow the aggressive marketing of these opioids. You know, companies would pay these fines, Rachel, and then the data shows they often got right back to business selling even more pills.

MARTIN: Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio. Thank you, Brian. We appreciate your reporting on this.

MANN: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.