Opioid Prescriptions Outnumber People In Some Rural California Counties

By Paul Gaita 09/14/17

The fourth smallest county in California has the highest per capita rate of opioid prescriptions in the state.

Close up of a woman's hands taking a pill from a bottle.

New statistics show that rates for opioid prescriptions in many rural communities in California not only exceed statewide rates, but also in some cases exceed the number of people living in those areas.

The numbers, compiled by the California Department of Public Health and featured in an article from the Sacramento Bee, show that high rates of prescriptions seen in states such as West Virginia and South Carolina are not exclusive to East Coast and Midwestern parts of the country. 

The Sacramento Bee story details statistics from several small counties in California with exceptionally high prescription rates, including Trinity County. With a population of 13,628 people, it's the fourth smallest county in the state, but also has the highest per capita rate of opioid prescriptions in California, with 18,439 prescriptions filled in 2016.

Similar rates are noted in counties in the northern and north-central areas of the state, including Shasta and Tuolumne. Counties such as Sacramento and El Dorado were above the statewide average. Across California in 2016, opioid prescriptions were prescribed to 15% of residents. In areas like Lake County, the Sacramento Bee story notes that prescription rates were 27%—nearly double the state average.

"What you're seeing in California is what you're seeing in many parts of the country, including Oregon," said Dr. Todd Korthuis, an associate professor of medicine at Oregon Health & Science University. "There are still a lot of rural counties around the U.S. that are awash in prescription opioids." Korthuis was given a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to study opioid addiction in rural areas.

The Bee also quoted health department data on demographics for opioid prescription. The age group with the greatest increase in opioid prescriptions in 2016 was Californians between the ages of 70 to 74—whose prescriptions jumped from 1,354 per 1,000 people in 2015 to 1,394 per 1,000 in 2016.

Meanwhile, prescriptions dropped for residents between the ages of 15 and 29, who received 1.9 million in 2015 and 1.7 million the following year, which accounts for 7.2% of the state total for prescriptions.

Legislation to address the opioid issue has been introduced in the California Assembly, including AB-182, which calls for the creation of a public awareness campaign. But the measure was held by the Senate Appropriations Committee due to concerns over cost. Another bill AB-1512—a measure to impose a fee on opioid manufacturers that would pay for treatment and prevention—did not make it out of the Assembly. 

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.