Distributors aren’t to blame for the opioid crisis

Editorial Board • Nov 15, 2017 at 4:03 PM

Anything can happen in a courtroom, but opioid distributors present what appears to be a solid defense in the flurry of lawsuits against them, the latest by Hawkins County.

The suits — more than 100 filed by law firms out for easy money — seek damages for the formidable public cost of prescription drug addiction. And that cost should be assigned, but where it belongs: those who manufacture and sell the product, and not those who merely service the marketplace by delivering a product. A separate suit bought by Tennessee attorneys general focuses on manufacturers.

“We aren’t willing to be scapegoats,” a spokesman for distributors said. Nor should they be.

The lawsuits target the three main distributors of prescription opioids, claiming they violated the terms of their federal permits by failing to track “irregularities in distribution patterns.” Under federal law, distribution companies are required to report drug orders of unusually large size or that deviate from a pattern of frequency. But what if they don’t?

A spokesman for an alliance of drug distributors said their function is to arrange for the transport and delivery of medicines to such facilities as are licensed to order them. Said the spokesperson, “We don’t make medicines, market medicines, prescribe medicines or dispense them. ... The idea that distributors are solely responsible for the number of opioid prescriptions written defies common sense.”

And that seems to make perfect sense. The distributors are in the business of delivering a product they don’t make, to people whose use of it they don’t control. How can they be held responsible for so-called doctor mills which overprescribe narcotics? The lawsuit is similar to insisting that the company that delivers for a bakery it does not own is responsible for taking note that in some parts, people eat more bread.

The spokesman said the distributors are willing to be part of a solution, but not to be held accountable for the actions of others. Distributors have no access to patient information nor are they qualified to question a licensed physician’s recommended treatment plan for their patients, including prescriptions, or advertise to get more customers.

The bad actors aren’t the people who deliver drugs from manufacturers to providers. It is those licensed by government to prescribe drugs, and we expect the courts will agree.

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