Sales of drugs like Oxycontin jumped 90 percent from 1997-2005
Retail sales of five leading painkillers nearly doubled over an eight-year period, reflecting a surge in use by patients nationwide who are living in a world of pain, according to a new analysis of federal drug prescription data.
The analysis reveals that oxycodone usage is migrating out of Appalachia to areas such as Columbus, Ohio, and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and significant numbers of codeine users are living in many suburban neighborhoods around the country.
The amount of five major painkillers sold at retail establishments rose 90 percent between 1997 and 2005, according to Drug Enforcement Administration figures.
More than 200,000 pounds of codeine, morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone and meperidine were purchased at retail stores during 2005, the most recent year represented in the data. That 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 and Fort Lauderdale.
“What we’re seeing now is the rest of the nation catching up to where we were,” said Robert Walker, a researcher at the University of Kentucky Center on Drug and Alcohol Research.
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.
Dr. Jeffrey Gordon, director of the blood and cancer center at Day Kimball Hospital in Putnam, Conn., said Vicodin is a popular painkiller to give patients after surgery, and many doctors are familiar with it.
“Over the past 10 years, there has been much better education in the medical community to … ask if people are having pain and to better diagnose and treat it,” Gordon said.
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., Nashville, Tenn., and on New York’s Long Island.
The DEA figures 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.
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