The amount of five major painkillers sold at retail establishments rose 90 percent between 1997 and 2005, according to an Associated Press analysis of statistics from the Drug Enforcement Administration.
More than 200,000 pounds of codeine, morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone and meperidine were purchased at retail stores during the most recent year represented in the data. That total is enough to give more than 300 milligrams of painkillers to every person in the country.
Oxycodone, the chemical used in OxyContin, is responsible for most of the increase. Oxycodone use jumped nearly six-fold between 1997 and 2005. The drug gained notoriety as “hillbilly heroin,” often bought and sold illegally in Appalachia. But its highest rates of sale now occur in places such as suburban St. Louis; Columbus, Ohio; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Beyond big cities
The world of pain extends beyond big cities and involves more than oxycodone.
In Appalachia, retail sales of hydrocodone — sold mostly as Vicodin — are the highest in the nation. Nine of the 10 areas with the highest per-capita sales are in mostly rural parts of West Virginia, Kentucky or Tennessee.
Suburbs are not immune to the explosion.
While retail sales of codeine have fallen by one-quarter since 1997, some of the highest rates of sales are in communities around Kansas City, Mo., and Nashville, Tenn., and on New York’s Long Island.
The DEA figures analyzed by the AP include nationwide sales and distribution of drugs by hospitals, retail pharmacies, doctors and teaching institutions. Federal investigators study the same data trying to identify illegal prescription patterns.
Aging population, aggressive marketing
An AP investigation found these reasons for the increase:
The population is getting older. As age increases, so does the need for pain medications. In 2000, there were 35 million people older than 65. By 2020, the Census Bureau estimates the number of elderly in the U.S. will reach 54 million.
Drugmakers have embarked on unprecedented marketing campaigns. Spending on drug marketing has gone from $11 billion in 1997 to nearly $30 billion in 2005, congressional investigators found. Profit margins among the leading companies routinely have been three and four times higher than in other Fortune 500 industries.
A major change in pain management philosophy is now in its third decade. Doctors who once advised patients that pain is part of the healing process began reversing course in the early 1980s; most now see pain management as an important ingredient in overcoming illness.
Retired Staff Sgt. James Fernandez, 54, of Fredericksburg, Va., survived two helicopter crashes and Gulf War Syndrome over 20 years in the Marine Corps. He remains disabled from his service-related injuries and takes the equivalent of nine painkillers containing oxycodone every day.
It’s made a difference,” he said. “I still have bad days, but it’s under control.”
Such stories should hearten longtime advocates of wider painkiller use, such as Russell Portenoy, head of New York’s Beth Israel pain management department. But they have not.
“I’m concerned and many people are concerned,” he said, “that the pendulum is swinging too far back.”
More people are abusing prescription painkillers because the medications are more available. The vast majority of people with prescriptions use the drugs safely. But the number of emergency room visits from painkiller abuse has increased more than 160 percent since 1995, according to the government.
Spooked by high-profile arrests and prosecutions by state and federal authorities, many pain-management specialists now say they offer guidance and support to patients but will not write prescriptions, even for the sickest people. The increase in painkiller retail sales continues to rise, but only barely. There was a 150 percent increase in volume in 2001. Four years later, the year-to-year increase was barely 2 percent.
People who desperately need strong painkillers are forced to drive a long way — often to a different state — to find doctors willing to prescribe high doses of medicine. Siobhan Reynolds, the widow of a New Mexico patient who needed large amounts of painkillers for a connective tissue disorder, said she routinely drove her late husband to see an accommodating doctor in Oklahoma.
Perhaps no place illustrates the trends and consequences for the world of pain better than Myrtle Beach, a sprawling community of strip malls, hotels and bars perched along a 60-mile strip of sand on the Atlantic Ocean. The metro area, which includes three counties, is home to 350,000 people but sees more than 14 million tourists annually, drawn to its warm water, golf courses and shopping.
During the eight-year period reflected in government figures, oxycodone distribution increased 800 percent in the area of Myrtle Beach, partly due to a campaign by Purdue Pharmaceuticals of Stamford, Conn. The privately held company has pleaded guilty to lying to patients, physicians and federal regulators about the addictive nature of their drug.