A CVS Health product is displayed at a store in North Andover, Mass., Monday, May 3, 2021. Credit: Elise Amendola / AP

CONCORD, N.H.  — The state of New Hampshire sued pharmacy chains Tuesday, becoming the latest government entity seeking to hold them accountable for fueling the nation’s deadly opioid epidemic.

The lawsuit filed by Attorney General John Formella calls CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens and their subsidiaries “the last link in the opioid supply chain and the critical gatekeeper between dangerous opioid narcotics in the public.” It accuses the companies of flouting their duty to protect public health and safety by failing to stop suspicious prescriptions and diverted drugs.

“As both drug distributors and the operators of chain pharmacy locations, these companies were in a unique position to more closely monitor the flow of these highly addictive drugs from their stores,” Formella said in a statement. “By bringing this lawsuit, we are attempting to hold them accountable for contributing to a crisis they helped create and that tragically led to the loss of life for thousands of people throughout New Hampshire.”

Opioids — including both prescription drugs and illegal ones like heroin and illicitly produced fentanyl — have been linked to more than 500,000 deaths in the U.S. since 2000, and the number of cases reached a record high in 2020.

Once among the hardest hit states, New Hampshire spent millions in federal funds in 2019 to create a hub-and-spoke model called “The Doorway” in which hospitals and others work with local providers to ensure that help is less than an hour away anywhere in the state. That helped keep the state’s overdose death rate steady, but it remains higher than the national average.

“By now, most Americans have been affected, either directly or indirectly, by the opioid epidemic,” the lawsuit states. “This crisis arose not only from the opioid manufacturers’ deliberate marketing strategy, but from distributors’ and pharmacies’ equally deliberate efforts to evade restrictions on opioid distribution and dispensing.”

Many of the lawsuits filed by local and state governments over the toll of the drugs have targeted companies that make or distribute opioids, but litigation against pharmacies has emerged, too. In the only verdict in a pharmacy case so far, an Ohio jury last year found that CVS, Walgreens and Walmart recklessly distributed opioids in two counties. A judge has yet to determine their penalty.

A spokesperson for Walgreens declined to comment Tuesday. The other defendants did not respond to requests for comment.

Holly Ramer, Associated Press