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US efforts to crack down on the illegal use of prescription pain pills have picked up pace as Cardinal Health, one of the country’s largest pharmaceutical wholesalers, agreed to suspend shipments from one its distribution centres.
An investigation by the US Drug Enforcement Agency had found that 7.2m doses of oxycodone were distributed by Cardinal to two CVS pharmacies in a Florida city of just over 50,000 people during a three-year period.
The DEA said the supply “grossly exceeded” the needs of the population and that the company missed obvious signs of fraudulent prescriptions.
Florida has become the centre of the US “pill mill” problem and several recent arrests have highlighted the role doctors and pharmacists have played in the illicit distribution of prescription narcotics.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said deaths from prescription drug abuse have surpassed deaths caused by cocaine and heroin overdoses and have become more frequent than fatalities from car crashes.
The settlement with Cardinal comes as the US has expanded its pursuit of global drug companies and distributors to stem the flow of addictive pain medications such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, which have become a leading cause of accidental death.
A US Senate committee last week launched an investigation into the practices of drug groups such as Purdue Pharma, Endo Pharmaceuticals and Johnson & Johnson. The committee suggested the companies, which produce powerful pain drugs, have improper financial ties with doctors and hospitals and that “dubious” marketing practices could be behind the recent surge in deaths from painkillers.
On Tuesday, Cardinal agreed to stop distributing controlled medicines from the facility in question for two years and to improve its “anti-diversion” procedures. Cardinal was not subject to a financial penalty under the settlement. The company said the DEA is not planning to take additional measures against its other facilities.
“Cardinal Health will continue its efforts to help stop prescription drug abuse,” the company said in a statement.
In 2008, Cardinal was fined $34m for selling hydrocodone to “rogue” internet pharmacies.
A DEA spokeswoman had no comment on the settlement.
CVS Caremark, a US drugstore operator, continues to face litigation from the US government, which argues that the company should have known that a large number of prescriptions for controlled substances were not for legitimate medical purposes.
CVS was not immediately available to comment.