The US Department of Justice has accused Walmart of helping to fuel America’s opioid crisis.
In a lawsuit filed on Tuesday, prosecutors said the retail giant filled hundreds of thousands of questionable prescriptions, “knowingly” violating vetting rules.
Walmart revealed in October that it had been threatened with such a suit.
At the time, Walmart said the US was imposing “unworkable requirements that are not found in any law”.
Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, operates more than 5,000 pharmacies at its stores across the US and for years has also acted as a drug distributor.
According to the lawsuit, the company pressured staff to fill prescriptions as fast as possible and withheld information from pharmacists, collected by its compliance unit, which indicated such orders did not have valid medical purposes.
Jeffrey Bossert Clark, acting assistant attorney general of the Department of Justice’s civil division, said Walmart’s actions “contributed to the epidemic of opioid abuse throughout the United States”.
“As one of the largest pharmacy chains and wholesale drug distributors in the country, Walmart had the responsibility and the means to help prevent the diversion of prescription opioids,” he said.
“Instead, for years, it did the opposite — filling thousands of invalid prescriptions at its pharmacies and failing to report suspicious orders of opioids and other drugs placed by those pharmacies.”
The goverment is seeking financial penalties for the misconduct, which it said dated to 2013. It said the fines could amount to “billions of dollars”.
Walmart did not immediately comment. In anticipation of the lawsuit, it filed its own legal action against the US in October, asking the court to clarify the responsibilities of pharmacists.
Roughly 450,000 people have died from overdoses related to prescription painkillers and illegal drugs since 1999.
The lawsuit against Walmart is the latest effort by the Department of Justice to respond to the public health crisis.
In October, it announced that Oxycontin-maker Purdue Pharma would pay more than $8bn and admit to enabling the supply of drugs without legitimate medical purpose.