How 76 Billion Opioid Pills Flooded The Country

By Kelly Burch 07/19/19

Shocking data from a federal opioid lawsuit has been unsealed and made available to the public.

opioid pills

Data that was recently unsealed by a panel of federal judges has revealed that drug companies flooded the country with 76 billion opioid pills between 2006 and 2012, enough to supply every American adult and child with 36 pills each year.

In some rural areas in Appalachia, the rate was more than 300 pills a year for every resident. 

The data was reported on by The Washington Post. It comes from a database maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System, or ARCOS. The ARCOS maintains a record of every legal drug sale in the country. 

The ARCOS data has been instrumental in the federal lawsuits involving opioid manufacturers. However, the data was sealed by federal Judge Dan Polster, even though he had said “the vast oversupply of opioid drugs in the United States has caused a plague on its citizens” and that releasing the data “is a reasonable step toward defeating the disease.”

Making the Data Public

The Washington Post and Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia sued for access to the data, and in response the ARCOS was made public this week. 

“The data provides statistical insights that help pinpoint the origins and spread of the opioid epidemic—an epidemic that thousands of communities across the country argue was both sparked and inflamed by opioid manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacies,” said Paul T. Farrell Jr., a lawyer for the newspapers. 

The data shows that the distribution of opioid pain pills increased rapidly during that six-year period. In 2006, 8.4 billion pills were distributed, and that rose more than 50% to 12.6 billion pills in 2012. For comparison, morphine doses remained relatively steady during that period, with about 500 million per year. 

The Biggest Players in the Opioid Crisis

The ARCOS also showed that the biggest players in the opioid epidemic are not the ones commonly talked about. The three biggest opioid manufacturers controlled the vast majority of sales: SpecGx with 37.7% of the market, Actavis Pharma with 34.6% of the market, and Par Pharmaceutical 15.7% of the market. Purdue Pharma was the fourth-largest manufacturer, but controlled just 3.3% of the market. 

Likewise, the three largest drug distributors were responsible for distributing more than half of the opioid pills during that time. They were McKesson with 18.4% of the market, Walgreens with 16.5%, and Cardinal Health with 14%. The fourth largest manufacturer, AmerisourceBergen, controlled 11.7% of the market. 

A spokesperson for AmerisourceBergen told The Washington Post that the data “offers a very misleading picture.”

The database also helps show that the areas that received the most opioid pills were also those with the highest overdose rates. West Virginia, which had the highest death rate between 2006-2012, received an average or 66.5 pills per person during that time period, nearly double the national average.

Other hard-hit states also had very high opioid sales: Kentucky with 63.3 pills per person, South Carolina with 58, Tennessee with 57.7 and Nevada with 54.7.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.