Many stories about the opioid epidemic are about people, and that’s logical. That approach is meaningful because it humanizes the crisis, it puts a face on addiction that is easier to relate to.
But this story is about numbers, and for good reason. To more fully understand the drug epidemic in our state and the country, we need more information about the volume of pills. Thanks to a year-long legal battle by the Washington Post and HD Media, which publishes the Charleston Gazette-Mail, we now have access to some stunning statistics.
A U.S. District Court Judge ordered the release of seven years-worth of data maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration of all pain pills sold in the U.S. Here are some of the numbers and analysis provided by the Post.
—America’s drug companies distributed 76 billon oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills from 2006 through 2012.
—Six companies distributed 75 percent of the pills: McKesson Corporation, Walgreens, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, CVS and Walmart. Three companies manufactured 88 percent of the opioids: SpecGx, Actavis Pharma and Par Pharmaceutical.
—The national death rate from opioids during that period was 4.6 deaths per 100,000 residents, but the death rates were significantly higher in counties that received the most pain pills. “Thirteen of those counties had an opioid death rate more than eight times the national average, according to government data. Seven of them were in West Virginia,” the Post reported.
—The data show what the Post called “a virtual opioid belt of more than 90 counties stretching southwest from Webster County, West Virginia through southern Virginia and ending in Monroe County, Kentucky.”
The Post has also created an interactive map where you can see opioid distribution data for individual counties. Here’s what stands out in West Virginia:
—Mingo County received shipments of 38,269,630 prescription pain pills from 2006 to 2012. That’s 210 pills per year for every man, woman and child in the county.
—Drug companies sent 45,586,800 opioids to Logan County during that seven-year period. That averages out to 180 pills annually for every person.
—Boone County’s shipments to pharmacies totaled 18,759,940. That’s over 100 pills per person per year.
—15,223,900 oxycodone and hydrocodone pills went to McDowell County. That’s the equivalent of 100 pills per person per year.
Naturally, not every person in every county was taking the pain pills, but the per person statistics provide some perspective on the flood of prescription drugs.
The Post’s interactive map also breaks out for each county the number of pills sold by each company and every pharmacy.
As the Post reports, opioid supplies tightened when “the federal government began imposing hundreds of millions of dollars of fines on the largest drug distributors and pharmacies between 2008 and 2015. However, by then the damage was done. As prescription pain killers became harder to get, addicts turned to heroin and then to fentanyl.”
Several drug companies have already agreed to multi-million-dollar settlements for damages from the opioids. However, the mother of all lawsuits is still pending. More than 2,000 counties and communities have pooled together in a lawsuit in federal court in Cleveland, Ohio against the drug companies over the flood of opioids.
The Post reports, “The companies, in turn, have blamed the epidemic on over-prescribing by doctors and pharmacies and on customers who abused the drugs. The companies say they were working to supply the needs of patients with legitimate prescriptions desperate for pain relief.”
Even in West Virginia, where communities have been ravaged by drug abuse, these numbers are shocking for the sheer volume and they provide a critical context for understanding the extent of the opioid crisis.