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The emails came to light on Thursday during a landmark federal case in Charleston brought by one of the worst-affected communities of the crisis against three drug distributors.
Cabell County and the city of Huntingdon are seeking more than $2bn in damages from the “Big Three” distributors — Cardinal Health, McKesson and AmerisourceBergen. Those companies are accused of being responsible for shipping almost 90 per cent of the 109.8 million doses of opioids hydrocodone and oxycodone to the county between 2006 and 2014.
In one of the emails revealed in court, a staff member of AmerisourceBergen wrote in response to an email about new regulations on opioid distribution in Kentucky: “One of the hillbilly’s must have learned how to read :-).”
The emails were revealed during the testimony of Chris Zimmerman, senior vice president of regulatory affairs at AmerisourceBergen. The reference to “pillbillies” was contained in the lyrics of a parody song shared by Mr Zimmerman that was supposed to be sung “To the tune of Beverly Hillbillies.”
The email read:
“So they loaded up the truck and drove speedily
South, that is.
Pain Clinics, cash n’ carry
A Bevy of Pillbillies.”
The emails were sent in 2012, at a time when the opioid crisis in West Virginia was near its peak. A flood of opioid pills into communities across the state had fuelled an epidemic of addiction and overdoses. When the deliveries of those drugs were reduced, addicts turned to illicit drugs like heroin. Just a few years later, West Virginia had the highest overdose rate in the country.
When questioned in the courtroom, Mr Zimmerman said: “I shouldn’t have sent the email.” But he added that his comments were taken out of context, reported Mountain State Spotlight.
The lawyer for the plaintiffs said the language demonstrated “a pattern of conduct by those people charged with protecting our community — and they’re circulating emails disparaging hillbillies.”
The release of the emails comes near the end of the second week of the trial in Charleston, West Virginia. The trial is expected to last for 12 weeks.