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Todd Hembree, attorney general for the Cherokee Nation, says drug companies didn’t do enough to keep painkillers off the black market or to stop the overprescription of these powerful narcotics, which include OxyContin and Vicodin. “They flooded this market,” Hembree says. “And they knew — or should’ve known — that they were doing so.”

Walgreens, CVS Health and Wal-Mart are all named in the suit, along with the nation’s three largest pharmaceutical distributors: AmerisourceBergen, McKesson and Cardinal Health. They act as middlemen between pharmacies and drugmakers, distributing 85 to 90 percent of the prescription painkillers that some see as fueling a growing opioid epidemic in the U.S.

When reached for comment, one of the defendants, Cardinal Health, sent a statement to NPR saying the suit was a mischaracterization of facts and a misunderstanding of the law. “We believe these lawsuits do not advance the hard work needed to solve the opioid abuse crisis — an epidemic driven by addiction, demand and the diversion of medications for illegitimate use.”

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