Newly released federal data shows how drugmakers and distributors increased shipments of opioid painkillers as the national — and local — addiction crisis accelerated.
The information covering the period from 2006 to 2012 had been held under a protective order.
Rome attorney Andy Davis said attorneys and their clients in a multi-district litigation case could access the details about pharmacy deliveries across the country but the data could not be made public.
U.S. District Judge Dan Polster ruled Monday that there “is clearly no basis” for shielding the information.
Davis and attorney Bob Finnell are heading a lawsuit filed by Rome, Floyd County and nearby cities and counties contending that manufacturers and distributors of the painkillers knew they were highly addictive and were being prescribed at unsafe rates.
The local case is consolidated with about 2,000 others in Polster’s court.
The new data shows that companies distributed 8.4 billion hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to commercial pharmacies in 2006 and 12.6 billion in 2012. That’s an increase of over 50%.
Over that seven-year period, 76 billion pills were distributed in all, according to an analysis by The Washington Post, which had sued along with another outlet, HD Media, to obtain the data.
During the same timeframe, prescription opioids contributed to more than 100,000 deaths in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A National Opioid Community Assessment Tool created at the University of Chicago shows 64 people in Floyd County died of drug overdoses between 2008 and 2012. That’s a rate of 20.9 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to the state rate of 14.8 and the national average of 18.1.
The number rose to 66 between 2013 and 2017, a rate of 21.1 deaths per 100,000. The study counted fatalities only in people between the ages of 15 and 64.
The newly released data shows that opioid shipments increased even after one of the companies, Purdue Pharma, was hit with a $635 million federal fine in 2007 for falsely claiming its drug, OxyContin, was not as addictive as earlier opioids.
While OxyContin is the best-known prescription opioid, the Post analysis shows that Purdue accounted for just 3% of pills sold during that time. Three makers of generic drugs accounted for nearly 90% of the sales.
The data tracks a dozen different opioids, including oxycodone and hydrocodone, according to the Post. They account for most of the pill shipments to pharmacies.
The distribution data, maintained by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, is a key element of lawsuits filed by more than 2,000 state, local and tribal governments seeking to hold drug companies accountable for the crisis.
Drug distribution companies told The Post that the federal data would not exist without their providing accurate reports to the DEA. One company, AmerisourceBergen, said the data “offers a very misleading picture.”
The Washington Post and HD Media, which owns newspapers in West Virginia, went to court for access and were the first media outlets to receive the data. By Tuesday, it had not been made available to the public or other news organizations that had requested it.
Experts trace the epidemic’s origins to 1995 and the marketing of the prescription painkiller OxyContin.
It was meant be safer and more effective than other prescription opioids, but some patients found themselves hooked and drug abusers found they could crush the tablets and snort or inject them to get high.
Gradually, more addicts turned to cheaper street drugs such as heroin and fentanyl. In 2015, heroin began causing more deaths than prescription painkillers or other drugs.
In 2016, fentanyl and its close cousins became the biggest drug killer, and in 2018 they were involved in about 46 percent of the reported overdose deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.