An Associated Press analysis of drug distribution data found that in 2012, as the death toll from the nation’s opioid crisis was growing — almost exponentially — drug companies shipped out enough of the powerful and addictive painkillers for every man, woman and child in the nation to have a 20-day supply.
In some counties, most of them in Appalachia where education was limited and poverty was high, the shipments equated to more than a 100-day supply.
The same drug-distribution data, which was released as a result of lawsuits against the pharmaceutical manufacturers, showed that the amount of opioids as measured in terms of the drugs’ potency continued to rise early in the current decade even as the number of pills distributed began to fall. Long story short, doctors were prescribing — and a willing pharmaceutical industry was supplying — stronger pills.
Anna Lembke, a Stanford University professor who researches opioids, told the AP the data shows “… it wasn’t just the number of pills being shipped that increased. The actual amount of opioids being prescribed and consumed went up. We know that the higher the dose of prescribed opioids, and the longer patients are on them, even for a legitimate pain condition, the more likely they are to get addicted.”
The AP analysis found that the overall amount of opioid medication shipped to pharmacies, medical providers and hospitals increased 55% from 2006 through 2012. The number of pills rose significantly over that period, but that increase was lower — about 44%.
In 2006 and 2007, the counties at the very top of the list of those receiving the most opioids were scattered throughout the eastern half of the nation. By 2012, they were all in the Appalachian region.
The data showed that in 2006, Tennessee’s Hamblen County received the most opioid medication per person in the country, roughly 70 days’ worth of a typical prescription for every man, woman and child. By 2012, the top county was Norton, Virginia, and the number of days’ worth of opioids had ballooned by 100% to a staggering 134.
The data comes from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration’s collection of information from pharmaceutical companies about how controlled substances were distributed down to pharmacies, doctors and hospitals.
During the 2006-2012 period, opioid overdose-related deaths in the U.S. increased from about 18,000 a year to more than 23,000. Since then, the number has doubled, with opioids, heroin and even strong illicit drugs such as fentanyl surpassing automobile accidents as the leading cause of accidental death.
Government lawsuits say pharmaceutical companies violated DEA policy by shipping orders even when they believed them to be “suspicious” because they were far larger than normal.
Case in point: An email chain from Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, showed an employee flagging an order at 4:15 p.m. on Oct. 27, 2009, from a drug distributor because it was nearly twice as big as the customer’s usual 12-week order of a certain dosage. The order was valued at nearly $293,000. The email chain shows the order was approved one minute later.
The fact that the greed of the pharmaceutical manufacturers resulted in the death of thousands of Americans is a tragedy. It will be a far greater tragedy if safeguards aren’t enacted and rigorously enforced to prevent it from happening again.