Pain-pill problem has spread to new areas from Appalachia

Sales of hydrocodone (the key ingredient of Vicodin, Norco and Lortab) and oxycodone (the main ingredient in OxyContin, Percocet and Percodan) skyrocketed in new parts of the country as the problem spread from its Appalachian roots in the last decade, an Associated Press analysis shows.
Oxycodone sales in Tennessee, New York and Florida were up by more than 499 percent from 2000 to 2010, the highest increases in the country, the study shows. When it came to hydrocodone, South Dakota had the highest increase, with 300 to 399 percent.
In Kentucky, oxycodone sales increased by 171 percent and hydrocodone sales increased 176 percent from 2000 to 2010. Kentucky’s increase was not as high because the problem started in the eastern part of the state and in West Virginia, with coal miners needing relief from back and chronic pain, reports the AP’s Chris Hawley. The problem also started in affluent suburbs, said Pete Jackson, president of Advocates for the Reform of Prescription Opioids. “Now it’s spreading from those two poles,” he said.
In 2010, pharmacies dispensed 69 tons of oxycodone and 42 tons of hydrocodone nationwide. “That’s enough to give 40 5-milligram Percocets and 24 5-milligram Vicodins to every person in the country,” Hawley reports.
As sales increase, so do overdose deaths and pharmacy robberies, Hawley reports. Opioid pain relievers, a category that includes oxycodone and hydrocodone, caused 14,800 overdose deaths in 2008 and numbers are rising, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Part of the increase in sales can be blamed on the fact that the U.S. population is aging, resulting in more pain issues. There is also more of a willingness by doctors to treat pain, said Gregory Bunt, medical director at New York’s Daytop Village chain of drug treatment clinics. But they’re also increasing because people are addicted. “We all recognized that these drugs can be just as dangerous and deadly as illicit substances when misused or abused,” said Gil Kerlikowske, the U.S. drug czar.
The AP analysis used drug data collected four times a year by the Drug Enforcement Adminstration‘s Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System. “The DEA tracks shipments sent from distributors to pharmacies, hospitals, practitioners and teaching institutions and then compiles the data using three-digit ZIP codes,” Hawley writes. “Every ZIP code starting with 100-, for example, is lumped together into one figure.”
ZIP codes that include military bases or Veterans Affairs hospitals have had large increases because of treatment of injured soldiers. Some areas are affected because mail-order pharmacies have shipping centers there. Areas with large Indian reservations also had larger numbers.
The most sweeping trend, though, is how the pain pill epidemic has spread to areas previously untouched. In 2000, Florida’s oxycodone sales were centered around West Palm Beach. By 2010, they were common in almost every part of the state. It has become commonplace in New York City and its suburbs. Staten Island alone saw a sales jump of 1,200 percent. And Tennessee had a five- to six-fold increase in that decade. “We’ve got a problem. We’ve got to get a handle on it,” said Tommy Farmer, a counterdrug official with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. (Read more)
For a view of an interactive map that shows more Kentucky numbers, click here.
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