Legal ripples over opioid use may spread from across the pond
Americans love a good courtroom drama. Those brought up on John Grisham and Judge Judy have undoubtedly been keeping an eye on events in Ohio in recent weeks.
For readers who don’t know, some of the largest pharmacy chains in the US went on trial for the first time in October over allegations they fuelled the opioid epidemic in the US. The Ohio counties of Lake and Trumbull brought proceedings against Walgreens Boots Alliance, CVS, Walmart and Giant Eagle.
All denied they had failed to prevent excessive amounts of opioids being sold in those Ohio communities, although Giant Eagle has settled. Attorneys representing Walgreens, CVS and Walmart said their clients have put safeguards in place and would look carefully for any signs of opioid misuse.
There is a lot riding on the outcome of this case and 3,300 similar cases brought mainly by state and local governments. Why, you might ask? First is the potential for litigation from other counties in other US states and billions of dollars in compensation if companies are found liable for an epidemic that caused around half a million overdose deaths between 1999 and 2019.
But what caught my eye was the Ohio counties’ allegation that the pharmacies had failed to identify the “red flags” when patients were misusing opioid drugs.
Yes, there are differences between the US and UK legal systems and opioid misuse is nowhere near the level of that in the US but it is not inconceivable that pharmacies here could find themselves being legally scrutinised. This could significantly raise the stakes for independent prescribers too.
Sector leaders have long called for pharmacies to have read-write access to patient records but that would come with added responsibility and greater pressure. What, for instance, might the consequences be for you if you failed to spot those “red flags?”
In future, could individual pharmacists and pharmacy owners be taken to court if an overdose death occurs as a result of their supply of opioid analgesics?
It feels hypothetical right now but we should all keep a close eye on how this plays out across the pond.
Neil Trainis is the editor of Independent Community Pharmacist.