Big Pharma execs mocked West Virginia, Kentucky as opioid overdoses soared: report

The CDC says 70% of US overdose deaths involve opioids, whether prescribed or elicit

Pharmaceutical executives mocked Kentucky and West Virginia residents as "Pillbillies" and drug addicts as concerns in both states grew over the opioid epidemic, according to emails recently unveiled in court.

In one, they shared a song "To the Tune of The Beverly Hillbillies," that included a line describing "OC," the drug oxycodone, as "Hillbilly Heroin."

The Mountain State Spotlight, a nonprofit West Virginia news outlet, reported that the emails were released by Cabell County Attorney Paull Farrell Jr. in federal court Thursday. They had been sent years ago, in 2011 and 2012, as opioid overdoses were skyrocketing.

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West Virginia’s city of Huntington and the nearby Cabell County are suing the nation’s three leading opioid manufacturers for allegedly fueling a deadly drug crisis in the region. Along with a number of similar lawsuits from around the country, they aim to hold Big Pharma accountable for overdose deaths.

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The emails were attributed to executives at AmerisourceBergen, one of the drugmakers involved in the lawsuit, and they were made public during the second day of testimony from Chris Zimmerman, a senior vice president and the head of investigations at the company.

The song also mocked Floridians and then-Gov. Rick Scott, now a senator, for allegedly "invitin" West Virginia addicts to feed their habit in his state.

"Have a heapin helpin of Florida hospitality – Pill Mills, that is," the song concludes. "Take a load home, Y’all come back now, y’hear?"

At the end of the email chain, one executive responded with a smiley face, saying she’d already shared the disparaging lyrics.

"I sent this to you a month or so ago," she wrote. "Nice to see it recirculated."

Yet another email from Zimmerman, this one in response to Florida’s own crackdown on pill mills, read, "Watch out Georgia and Alabama, there will be a mass exodus of Pillbillies heading north."

For his part, Zimmerman apologized for the emails in court, according to the Spotlight.

Another email, referencing new opioid regulations in Kentucky, prompted another AmerisourceBergen employee, Cathy Marcum, to write, "One of the hillbilly’s (sic) must’ve learned how to read."

That one also ended with a smiley face.

But opioid addiction is no joke – with more than 70% of drug overdose deaths around the country involving opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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And opioid overdoses themselves have spiked since 2013.

More than 130 people die every day from opioid overdoses, according to the CDC. That includes victims who obtained the drugs with a prescription. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.