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S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson speaks during a press conference in Thursday in Columbia. Wilson announced he was filing a lawsuit against three distributors of opioids for allegedly worsening the opioid epidemic in the state.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson announced Thursday the state would be suing three major drug distributors for allegedly fueling the state's opioid epidemic.

“This lawsuit seeks to hold these companies responsible for their part in the opioid crisis,” Wilson said in a press release. “These distributors flooded the state with dangerously addictive drugs, devastating families across South Carolina.”

Wilson's office will be taking legal action against companies Cardinal, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen. Wilson alleges these distributors violated the S.C. Unfair Trade Practices Act in their distribution of opioids throughout the state.

Millions of opioids are distributed in Aiken County

Wilson's lawsuit comes in the wake of a report published by The Washington Post that analyzed the role of pharmacies in the nation's opioid epidemic. The data comes from a federal Drug Enforcement Administration database, and was only made public after media outlets sued for its release.

According to the data, over 38 million prescription pain pills were filled at pharmacies in Aiken County between 2006-2012. That's enough pain medication for every person in Aiken County to receive 34 pills per year during that time. 

The pharmacy that received the most pain pills from distributors was a CVS Pharmacy in Beech Island, were nearly 2.5 million pills were dispensed between 2006 and 2012.

Almost 10 million of the pain pills in Aiken County in that time frame were distributed by Cardinal Health, one of the defendants in Wilson's lawsuit.

This information does not track were opioids go once they leave the pharmacy, or who ultimately uses them.  

In an effort to combat the epidemic, community partnerships have sprung up between the Aiken Center, local law enforcement, schools and health services such as Aiken Regional Medical Services.

"We are ramping up fast," said Aiken Center Executive Director Margaret Key.

Community input will play a role in guiding the partnerships' response to the opioid epidemic in Aiken. Community listening sessions will be held around the county in September and October so the public can discuss their observations, experiences or concerns regarding opioid abuse in Aiken County.

The first session will be held Sept. 5 at the Aiken Family Y, 621 Trolley Line Road in Graniteville from 5:45 to 7:30 p.m.  

"We're talking about educators coming and getting kids to come and talk to us about these things," Key said. "Getting teenagers to come and talk to us during these meetings."

South Carolina's opioid problem by the numbers

The S.C. Attorney General's Office held a press conference Thursday addressing the lawsuit against the three companies.     

"The failure of these companies to follow the law has led to a flood of opioid pills that would have otherwise never made it to the streets," Wilson said Thursday. "Just consider that between 2006 and 2014 the three distributors … poured nearly 2.2 billion opioid pills into South Carolina."

The suit accuses the three companies of creating a public nuisance and will seek injunctive relief and civil penalties. 

During the press conference, Wilson said the companies violated the Unfair Trade Practices Act several times and created conditions that made it "impossible" to provide safe oversight of prescription opioid distribution throughout South Carolina.

"These companies have to monitor, investigate, report and refuse to ship suspicious orders of opioids, but until recently, these companies made almost no effort to do that," Wilson said. "Sometimes these companies even shipped orders that they knew to be suspicious, and in some cases they did not even report the suspicious orders to law enforcement until after the fact."

Wilson said an internal investigation by AmerisourceBergen recommended the company's compliance procedures be overhauled, but no action was taken to do so. He also said Cardinal and McKesson failed to conduct oversight of the chain pharmacies that bought most of their pills.

The Attorney General's Office investigation found that Cardinal assigned only three employees out of a company of about 30,000 people to conduct due diligence reviews of more than 20 distribution centers. 

Wilson said the investigation also found a sharp increase in opioid deaths, along with an unusually high volume of pills being distributed.

The Attorney General's investigation also found that: 

• Between 2006 and 2014, South Carolina was found to have the third highest concentration of pills distributed per year in the nation. In 2017, 300 million pills were dispensed in South Carolina – nearly 60 times the state's population.

• Charleston County was found to have the highest average distribution rate of pain pills per person per year of any county in the United States from 2006 through 2012.

•  As of January 2018, deaths due to heroin and opioid overdose in South Carolina exceeded murders for three years in a row. From 2014 to 2018, fatal drug overdoses involving opioids increased 62%.

During Thursday's press conference, Wilson said the current lawsuit against the three companies stemmed from recent findings released about the nation's opioid epidemic, and from the 2017 state lawsuit filed against opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma L.P., Purdue Pharma Inc. and the Purdue Frederick Company.

Kristina Rackley is a general assignment reporter with the Aiken Standard.