Sales of popular prescription painkillers in the U.S. have shown dramatic rises in new parts of the country, the Associated Press reports, and experts believe the push to relieve patients’ suffering is producing an addiction epidemic.
Some places in the United States even saw a 16 times increase in the distribution of oxycodone, the main ingredient in OxyContin, Percocet and Percodan from 2000 to 2010, according to Drug Enforcement Administration figures.
The distribution of hydrocodone, the key ingredient in Vicodin, Norco and Lortab, has also exploded in Appalachia, the epicenter of the painkiller epidemic, as well as in the Midwest.
The boom in painkiller sales have also coincided with a wave of overdose deaths, pharmacy robberies and other problems in New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Florida and other states. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that opioid pain relievers, the category that includes oxycodone and hydrocodone, caused 14,800 overdose deaths in 2008, and the death toll continues to rise.
Pharmacies across the nation had received about 69 tons of pure oxycodone and 42 tons of pure hydrocodone in 2010, enough to give 40 5-mg Percocets and 24 5-mg Vicodins to every person in the United States, according to the latest DEA statistics which consists of shipments from distributors to pharmacies, hospitals, practitioners and teaching institutions.
Gregory Bunt, medical director at New York's Daytop Village chain of drug treatment clinic, told Associated Press that the increase is partly due to the aging U.S. population with pain issues and a greater willingness by doctors to treat pain.
He says that sales are also being driven by addiction, because users often become physically dependent on painkillers and start “doctor shopping” to keep their painkiller prescriptions.
"Prescription medications can provide enormous health and quality-of-life benefits to patients," Gil Kerlikowske, the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, told Congress in March. "However, we all now recognize that these drugs can be just as dangerous and deadly as illicit substances when misused or abused."
Taking opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone can make the user have intense feelings of well-being. The drugs can be swallowed, crushed into a powder and then smoked, snorted or injected into the bloodstream.
Pete Jackson, president of Advocates for the Reform of Prescription Opioids, told Associated Press that unlike most street drugs, the problem began in two different parts of the country: Appalachia and affluent suburbs.
"Now it's spreading from those two poles," Jackson said.
The Associated Press conducted a analysis based on the drug data collected quarterly by the DEA's Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System, and found that a few ZIP codes that include military bases or Veterans Affairs hospitals have seen large increases in painkiller use because of soldiers injured in the Middle East, law enforcement officials said.
Areas around St. Louis, Indianapolis, Las Vegas and Newark, N.J., have also seen increases in prescription painkiller drugs because mail-order pharmacies have shipping centers there, Carmen Catizone, executive director of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy told the Associated Press.
Oxycodone sales were mostly centered in coal-mining areas of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky where there are a lot of people with back problems and other chronic pain, but my 2010, the strongest sales had overtaken most of Tennessee and Kentucky, stretching as far north as Columbus, Ohio and as far south as Macon, Ga., Associated Press reports.
Tommy Farmer, a counterdrug official with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, said that many buyers started crossing into Tennessee to fill prescriptions after border states started upgrading computer systems meant to monitor drug sales.
Oxycodone sales in Florida mainly centered around West Palm Beach in 2000, but by 2010 the drug flowed to every part of the state.
Although not as high as in Appalachia or Florida, oxycodone sales also exploded in New York City and its suburbs, the borough of Staten Island alone saw sales jump 1,200 percent.
Parts of New Mexico, the state with 27 pain killer overdoses per 100,000 population, the highest rate compared to any other state in 2008, have seen oxycodone sales increase by ten times per capita and five times in hydrocodone sales.
Parts of eastern California saw a 500 percent increase around Modesto and Stockton from 2000 to 2010.
John Harsany, medical director of Riverside County's substance abuse program, told Associated Press that many California addicts have been switching from methamphetamine to prescription pills.
Hydrocodone use has exploded in some areas with large Indian reservations, which many have previously battled with substance abuse problems, in states like South Dakota, Arizona, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Experts say that painkiller sales are rapidly spreading in areas where there are few clinics to treat people who become addicted.