Graphics and text by ROGER D. H. WARBURTON/ecoRI News contributor
The Washington Post has made available to the public a portion of the database on opioid distribution that is maintained by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The Post has also included easy-to-use tools that allow anyone to analyze the data for any county in the United States, to quote The Post, “to help the public understand the impact of years of prescription pill shipments on their communities.”
The Post’s multi-story investigation can be found here. The purpose of this piece is to provide the data for Newport County.
The Post and the publisher of the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, one of the areas hit hardest by the opioid crisis, waged a yearlong legal battle for access to the database, which the government and the drug industry fiercely fought to keep secret.
The database, called ARCOS, tracks the path of every single pain pill sold in the United States, from manufacturers to pharmacies to every county, city, and town. The Post made available the data on oxycodone and hydrocodone pills, which account for three-quarters of the total opioid pill shipments to pharmacies.
The ARCOS data show that a staggering 76 billion pills were distributed from 2006 to 2012 by the nation’s largest drug companies, surging from 8.4 billion in 2006 to 12.6 billion in 2012. That amounts to 30 pills annually for every man, woman, and child in the United States for seven years.
It’s worth noting that oxycodone and hydrocodone pills can only be prescribed by licensed physicians.
About two dozen companies are being sued in federal court in Cleveland by nearly 2,000 cities, towns, and counties alleging that they conspired to flood the nation with opioids. The companies blamed the epidemic on overprescribing by doctors and pharmacies, and on customers who abused the drugs.
The opioid litigation is now larger in scope than the tobacco litigation of the 1980s, which resulted in a $246 billion settlement over 25 years.
Lawyers for The Post and the Gazette-Mail argued that the ARCOS material wouldn’t harm companies or investigations because the judge had already decided to allow the local government plaintiffs access to the information. The lawyers also noted the DEA didn't object when the West Virginia attorney general’s office provided partial ARCOS data to the Gazette-Mail in 2016.
On June 20, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Ohio sided with the news organizations, ruling that the protective order sealing the ARCOS database be lifted with reasonable redactions. The judge then lifted the protective order on ARCOS, ruling that all the data from 2006 through 2012 should be released to the public.
The pills fueled the opioid epidemic that resulted in nearly 100,000 deaths, spawned increased heroin use, and drives the current fentanyl crisis. In contrast, doses of morphine, a well-known treatment for severe pain, averaged slightly more than 500 million doses annually during the same period. That is, 25 times more opioid pills were distributed than morphine doses.
A handful of companies manufactured and distributed most of the opioids. Three companies manufactured 85 percent of Newport County’s pills: SpecGx (a subsidiary of Mallinckrodt), Actavis Pharma; and Par Pharmaceutical (a subsidiary of Endo Pharmaceuticals).
The average for Newport County is nearly 30 pills per person per year. While that is considerably less than the hardest-hit states, it still amounted to the distribution of 16.4 million pills throughout Newport County’s five communities during the seven-year period. The total population of Newport County during that time was about 83,000.
Roger D. H. Warburton, Ph.D., is a Newport, R.I., resident.
Editor’s note: Information used in the graphics was obtained through Washington Post reporting.