AP puts numbers on the prescription drug epidemic

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

The Associated Press’ Chris Hawley has worked through the latest numbers on the prescription painkiller boom, helping to illustrate the ongoing toll the opiod abuse epidemic is taking on traditional hotspots like Appalachia and emerging ones like the American Southwest and parts of New York City. Nationally, numbers continue to hit new heights.

Nationwide, pharmacies received and ultimately dispensed the equivalent of 69 tons of pure oxycodone and 42 tons of pure hydrocodone in 2010, the last year for which statistics are available. That’s enough to give 40 5-mg Percocets and 24 5-mg Vicodins to every person in the United States.

Hawley writes the numbers can be distorted by things like clinics for returning servicemembers, whose ranks have greatly increased in the past decade, as well as by mail-order clinics, but they still paint a detailed picture of where the opiods are going. Absent federal regulation, there is currently only a patchwork of state prescription drug tracking systems, many of which are not fully interoperable, but Hawley’s federal numbers help fill in the gaps.

The AP analysis used drug data collected quarterly by the DEA’s Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System. The DEA tracks shipments sent from distributors to pharmacies, hospitals, practitioners and teaching institutions and then compiles the data using three-digit ZIP codes. Every ZIP code starting with 100-, for example, is lumped together into one figure.

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