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Drug executive emails mocked Appalachians as "pillbillies"

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Charleston, West Virginia — Emails to and from a drug company executive presented at a landmark West Virginia trial against three large opioid distributors used terms like "pillbillies" to mock Appalachians, according to a published report.

The emails were presented Thursday in the civil case brought by Cabell County and the city of Huntington that accuses drug distributors AmerisourceBergen Drug Co., Cardinal Health Inc. and McKesson Corp. of fueling the U.S. opioid epidemic, the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington reported.

AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp. Senior Vice President Chris Zimmerman testified the emails were sent for business purposes, though some vented frustration from work to keep the supply chain safe.

"I'm sure you are going to show me more, but I can tell you the culture at ABDC is of the highest calibers," he said.

Cabell County attorney Paul T. Farrell Jr. disagreed: "It is a pattern of misconduct by those in charge of protecting our community," he said.

The first email mentioned in court contained parody lyrics about "pillbillies" traveling to find opiate prescriptions. In another, a corporate investigator forwarded an email titled "Oxycontin for kids" that included a cereal box altered to read "SMACK."

Zimmerman forwarded an email with a news article about increased shipment trucks among distributors and commented, "There is a whole lot of pain in the Appalachian area."

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In another, a lobbyist sent Zimmerman details of stricter legislation in Florida to curb opiate abuse in 2011. "Watch out Georgia and Alabama, there will be a mass exodus of pillbillies heading north," he wrote.

The most recent emails were from 2017 and referenced federal legislation introduced by West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin that would help fund substance abuse treatment programs.

An email to Zimmerman says, "one of the hillbillies must have learned how to read," regarding similar legislation in Kentucky.

Zimmerman apologized for the terms used in the emails and also testified about how the company's communication with the Drug Enforcement Administration about suspicious orders has changed over the years.

The companies have continued to blame the DEA for its lack of communication and the pill quotas it set, as well as a rise in prescriptions written by doctors.

Similar lawsuits have resulted in multimillion-dollar settlements by companies like OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, but this is the first time the allegations have wound up at federal trial. The result could have huge effects on hundreds of similar lawsuits that have been filed across the country.

Huntington was once ground zero for the addiction epidemic until a quick response program that formed in 2017 drove the overdose rate down. But the pandemic undid much of the progress.

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