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CNBC: Reckoning with U.S. opioid crisis as $8B Ohio trial kicks off

This article was originally published by CNBC.

CLEVELAND, Oct 21 (Reuters) – The fight over who is responsible for the opioid epidemic that has ravaged the United States heads to court on Monday in Ohio as local governments seek billions of dollars from companies that manufactured and distributed the highly-addictive painkillers.

The trial will pit two Ohio counties against five companies the local governments say helped fuel a nationwide crisis. Some 400,000 U.S. overdose deaths between 1997 and 2017 were linked to opioids, according to government data.

Ohio’s Cuyahoga and Summit counties are seeking around $8 billion to pay for addiction treatment programs and to cover expenses spent over the years on police and healthcare.

The defendants include the three largest U.S. wholesale drug distributors – AmerisourceBergen Corp, Cardinal Health Inc and McKesson Corp – as well as Israel-based drugmaker Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd and pharmacy chain operator Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc.

The outcome of the first federal lawsuit to go to trial over the epidemic could influence how much they and other companies, such as Johnson & Johnson, pay to reach what is known as a global settlement of all opioid litigation.

The bellwether, or test trial, kicks off after last-ditch efforts to strike a broader $48 billion settlement fell short on Friday.

Some 2,600 lawsuits have been brought by states, towns, cities, counties and tribal governments who say drugmakers overstated the benefits of opioids while downplaying the risks and distributors failed to flag and halt a rising tide of suspicious orders, shipping vast amounts of the pills across the country.

Drugmakers have denied wrongdoing, arguing their products carried U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved labels that warned of the addictive risks of opioids. They say they did not cause the terrible toll the epidemic has had on states and localities.

AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson said in a joint statement on Saturday that they made up only “one component of the pharmaceutical supply chain” and their role was to make sure medicines prescribed by licensed doctors were available for patients.

“We remain deeply concerned by the impact the opioid epidemic is having on families and communities across our nation – and we’re committed to being part of the solution,” the statement said.

Together, the three companies distribute around 90% of the country’s drugs.

Walgreens and Teva did not return a request for comment.