It was always difficult to get your hands around the prescription painkiller abuse problem in West Virginia. There were some statistics and plenty of anecdotal evidence about the influx of opioids, the resulting addiction and, in some cases, overdose deaths, but the picture remained somewhat vague.
But then Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre did something no one else had been able to do in West Virginia; he quantified the actual distribution of prescription painkillers to West Virginia pharmacies, providing a more precise understanding of the issue.
“Follow the pills and you’ll find the overdose deaths,” Eyre began his two-part investigative report last December. He followed that with the stunning statistics about the shipment of painkillers to the town of Kermit, population 392.
“There the out-of-state drug companies shipped nearly 9-million highly addictive—and potentially lethal—hydrocodone pills over two years to a single pharmacy in the Mingo County town. Rural and poor, Mingo County has the fourth-highest prescription opioid death rate of any county in the United States,” read the story.
Eyre had gotten hold of previously unreleased drug sales and shipping records from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the data was overwhelming. “In six years, drug wholesalers showered the state with 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills, while 1,728 West Virginians fatally overdosed on those two painkillers, a Sunday Gazette-Mail investigation found.”
The drug wholesalers say they were just the middlemen, that the patients, their doctors and the pharmacies were more directly responsible. The providers argue they were not initially made aware of the highly addictive nature of the painkillers.
Normally, statistics are boring. Reporters like to put a “face” on a story, as in here is how real people are impacted. Eyre did that as well, but in this story it was the specific numbers that brought the issue into a clearer focus.
For his work, Eyre was awarded a Pulitzer Prize this week for excellence in journalism. The judges cited his “courageous reporting, performed in the face of powerful opposition, to expose the flood of opioids flowing into depressed West Virginia counties with the highest overdose deaths in the country.”
Eyre is modest about the award, saying that his story came at the right time, as the country was becoming increasingly alarmed by an addiction crisis that has now expanded to include powerful synthetic opioids. That’s partially true, but it was his dogged determination to find out what really happened in West Virginia that brought the story home and brought him well-deserved recognition.