I don’t know anyone personally who has been affected by the opioid epidemic in the US. And I truly hope I never will. I don’t know if I would be able to maintain objectivity in my analysis of drug distributors and their involvement in this epidemic if I had experienced getting a call at night informing me that my loved one had died from a drug overdose.
Drug overdoses killed 70,237 Americans in 2017. Of these deaths, 47,600 (67.8%) involved opioids and 17,000 involved prescription opioids (24% of total overdose deaths). Legally prescribed opioids are killing 47 of us every day.
How did we get here? According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse:
“In the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers, and healthcare providers began to prescribe them at greater rates. This subsequently led to widespread diversion and misuse of these medications before it became clear that these medications could indeed be highly addictive.”
Today pharma distributors are used as scapegoats for the opioid epidemic – not because they are guilty but because they have money and they are “drug distributors.” They are dragged through the same mud as the tobacco companies and British Petroleum (after it spilled millions of gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico).
Despite negative headlines, we own drug distributors. Here is why:
They distribute legally prescribed medicine to pharmacies that are approved by several government agencies, including the DEA. Doctors write scripts; pharma distributors order medicine from pharma manufacturers and deliver them to pharmacies. The sad truth about the opioid epidemic is that 21-29% of patients who were prescribed them for chronic pain misused them, and 8-12% of those who received an opioid prescription developed an opioid use disorder.
However, just as truck drivers cannot be held liable for delivering cigarettes to convenience stores, pharma distributors are not manufacturers of drugs and cannot be held liable for the addictive properties of the drugs they distribute or the fact that doctors overprescribe them and patients misuse them.
Also, the DEA should be responsible for limiting the illegal use of opioids. That is its job – DEA stands for Drug Enforcement Agency. It has legal and enforcement resources that distributors lack. And it has a lot more data and tools. Drug distributors do their part and provide data to the ARCOS database that DEA manages. However, each individual distributor has data only for the drugs it distributes, while DEA has data (which it doesn’t share with distributors) for all opioid sales to pharmacies. The DEA is in a much better position to spot suspicious activity in orders than distributors. The DEA controls how much legal opioid is manufactured in the US every year and has been increasing quotas of opioids produced.
Opioids constitute only a very small percentage of the $450 billion in drugs distributed in the US, and thus incentives for distributors to overdistribute opioids are very limited. Though lawyers and the media keep saying that distributors are some of the largest companies in the S&P 500 by sales, they forget to mention that distributors operate on razor thin margins of less than 2%.
Comparing the distributors (not even the makers) of legal medicine, that helps millions of people cope with excruciating pain, to cigarette companies that have a 40% pretax profit margin on a product that doesn’t have a societal benefit, and is almost guaranteed to cause cancer if you use it long enough, creates awesome headlines but has little substance.
What if DEA was the one distributing all the opioid drugs to pharmacies instead of McKesson, Cardinal Health, and Amerisource Bergen? Would fewer people get addicted to opioids? Would opioids be less accessible? Remember, DEA sets the production targets every year. Maybe DEA would catch a few bad actors sooner – it has more data than distributors and a specific skillset and mindset aimed at catching criminals. But in the big scheme of things, even if DEA distributed opioids nothing would really change. Doctors would still prescribe them; some patients would still get addicted to them … and so on.
Distributors will likely settle lawsuits for two reasons: First, McKesson already settled with the FDA for $150 million for “failure to report suspicious orders of pharmaceutical drugs.” Second, McKesson and other drug distributors don’t want to be involved in costly and protracted litigation.
We don’t know how much the settlement will be, but it is very unlikely to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars and likely (see reasons above) to be hundreds of millions or a few billion dollars. Here is how we look at this. Today McKessonʻs market capitalization is $25 billion. We think the company is worth at least $50 billion (at 15 times earnings), thus there is a $25 billion of margin of safety. If the lawsuit costs the company less than $25 billion, McKesson will be a profitable investment; if not, then the market is right and we are wrong.