April 5, 2012

Painkiller sales soar, fueling addiction epidemic

The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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A pharmacist counts tablets of a generic version of Vicodin, a compound of hydrocodone bitartrate and acetaminophen.

AP

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In this March 30, 2012 photo, Makenzie Emerson, 19, of East Islip, N.Y., poses for a photograph at Daytop Suffolk Outreach center in Huntington Station, N.Y. Emerson had developed an addiction to pain killers and has recently completed treatment at the center. (AP Photo/John Dunn)

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TO SEE AN INTERACTIVE MAP of oxycodone sales in all 50 states, click here.

Many of the sales trends stretch across bigger areas.

In 2000, oxycodone sales were centered in coal-mining areas of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky — places with high concentrations of people with back problems and other chronic pain.

But by 2010, the strongest oxycodone sales had overtaken most of Tennessee and Kentucky, stretching as far north as Columbus, Ohio and as far south as Macon, Ga.

Per-capita oxycodone sales increased five- or six-fold in most of Tennessee during the decade.

"We've got a problem. We've got to get a handle on it," said Tommy Farmer, a counterdrug official with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Many buyers began crossing into Tennessee to fill prescriptions after border states began strengthening computer systems meant to monitor drug sales, Farmer said.

In 2006, only 20 states had prescription drug monitoring programs aimed at tracking patients. Now 40 do, but many aren't linked together, so abusers can simply go to another state when they're flagged in one state's system. There is no federal monitoring of prescription drugs at the patient level.

In Florida, the AP analysis underscores the difficulty of the state's decade-long battle against "pill mills," unscrupulous doctors who churn out dozens of prescriptions a day.

In 2000, Florida's oxycodone sales were centered around West Palm Beach. By 2010, oxycodone was flowing to nearly every part of the state.

While still not as high as in Appalachia or Florida, oxycodone sales also increased dramatically in New York City and its suburbs. The borough of Staten Island saw sales leap 1,200 percent.

New York's Long Island has also seen huge increases. In Islip, N.Y., teenager Makenzie Emerson says she started stealing oxycodone that her mother was prescribed in 2009 after a fall on ice. Soon Emerson was popping six pills at a time.

"When I would go over to friends' houses I would raid their medicine cabinets because I knew their parents were most likely taking something," said Emerson, now 19.

One day she overdosed at the mall. Her mother, Phyllis Ferraro, tried to keep her daughter breathing until the ambulance arrived.

"The pills are everywhere," Ferraro said. "There aren't enough treatment centers and yet there's a pharmacy on every corner."

The American Southwest has emerged as another hot spot.

Parts of New Mexico have seen tenfold increases in oxycodone sales per capita and fivefold increases in hydrocodone. The state had the highest rate of opioid painkiller overdoses in 2008, with 27 per 100,000 population.

Many parts of eastern California received only modest amounts of oxycodone in 2010, but the increase from 2000 was dramatic — more than 500 percent around Modesto and Stockton.

Many California addicts are switching from methamphetamine to prescription pills, said John Harsany, medical director of Riverside County's substance abuse program.

Hydrocodone use has increased in some areas with large Indian reservations, including South Dakota, northeastern Arizona and northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. Many of these communities have battled substance abuse problems in the past.

Experts worry painkiller sales are spreading quickly in areas where there are few clinics to treat people who get hooked, Bunt said.

In Utica, N.Y., Patricia Reynolds has struggled to find treatment after becoming dependent on hydrocodone pills originally prescribed for a broken tailbone. She said the nearest clinics offering the rehabilitation programs she wants are full and not accepting new patients.

"It's a really sad epidemic," Reynolds said. "I want people to start talking about it instead of pretending it's not a problem and hiding."

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