By Andrew Riddler and Sravan Gannavarapu
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — Between 2006 and 2012, more than 71 million opioid pills flowed into Henrico County. For the county’s 320,000 residents, that represented about 32 pills per person per year.
During the same time period, pharmacies in Petersburg, whose population is 32,000, received more than 10 million opioid pills — or about 45 pills annually for each city resident.
But Colonial Heights ranked No. 1 in opioid sales in the Richmond metropolitan area. From 2006 to 2012, nearly 11.4 million flooded into the city of about 17,500 people. That works out to 93 pills per capita each year.
Those numbers, computed by Capital News Service from data put online by The Washington Post, illustrate the widespread availability of highly addictive pain medication. That was a major contributor to the opioid epidemic that has gripped Virginia and the U.S., according to critics of the pharmaceutical industry. Since 2007, more than 5,400 people in the commonwealth have died from overdoses of prescription opioids.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is taking legal action against pharmaceutical companies. He is part of a multistate investigation to determine if drug distributors and manufacturers engaged in unlawful practices in marketing and selling opioids.
The Washington Post went to court to get the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System database. The newspaper is fighting to get more recent data. It is unclear whether the DEA has data after 2014.
Among other things, the data available showed that two Virginia cities — Norton and Martinsville — received the most opioid pain pills per capita in the country between 2006 and 2012. (On an annual basis, Norton got 306 pills per person, and Martinsville received 242 pills per person.)
“This new data just reinforces what we’ve long known: The roots of this crisis run through American medicine cabinets into the boardrooms and marketing offices of pharmaceutical companies, and they need to be held accountable,” Herring said after the newspaper posted the data.
“So many families in Virginia and around the country have experienced unimaginable loss because of the negligence and greed of opioid manufacturers and distributors. In Virginia, we have taken a multifaceted approach to the crisis that has emphasized treatment and prevention alongside enforcement and accountability for pharmaceutical companies and traffickers.”
Statewide, nearly 1.6 billion prescription pain pills were supplied to pharmacies and doctors in Virginia from 2006 to 2012 — about 29 pills per person per year.
The Richmond metro area as a whole was around the state per capita. The population in 2010 was 1.2 million, and the area received almost 238 million opioid pills — about 28 pills per person annually over the seven-year period.
But the per capita numbers varied widely among the four cities and 13 counties that make up the metropolitan area:
- Colonial Heights (93 pills per person per year) and neighboring Hopewell (52 pills) had the highest numbers.
- Chesterfield County (29 pills) and Richmond (23 pills) were in the middle.
- Dinwiddie and Prince George counties had the lowest numbers (about 4 pills per person per year).
About 46% of all pills sold in the Richmond area were manufactured by SpecGx, according to a CNS analysis of the data. Actavis Pharma made about 28% of the pills, and Par Pharmaceutical 12%.
The Richmond market was dominated by three sellers: CVS and Walgreen, which each dispensed about 53 million pills, and Rite Aid, which sold 25 million. Combined, pharmacies operated by these three companies sold 55% of the opioid pills in the Richmond metro area, the data showed.
In 2018, Herring sued Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, saying the company had helped create and prolong the opioid epidemic in Virginia. Herring said the lawsuit, which is still active, produced evidence that Purdue “pushed nearly 150 million opioid pills and patches into the Commonwealth of Virginia between 2008 to 2017.”
Herring’s suit alleges that Purdue Pharma misrepresented the risk of addiction to prescription opioid and launched a “multifaceted campaign of deception” to promote its products. The company knew many doctors were overprescribing opioids, the suit claimed, and yet “Purdue sales representatives continued to aggressively and deceptively market opioids directly to them.”
In addition to Herring’s lawsuit, dozens of cities and counties in Virginia have sued Purdue Pharma on grounds that opioid abuse has cost local governments millions of dollars. Facing thousands of lawsuits nationwide, the company declared bankruptcy in September.
None of the localities in the Richmond area has joined in taking legal action against opioid drug manufacturers, distributors or sellers.
However, Colonial Heights is addressing the issue in another way — by annually holding a Regional Heroin and Opiate Summit. The fifth iteration of the event was Oct. 15 and featured former basketball star Chris Herren.
Herren got hooked on OxyContin and other opioid painkillers while playing for the Boston Celtics. That led to his use of heroin — and to the end of his NBA career. Herren went through rehab and now travels the country, warning about the dangers of opioid abuse.
“This crisis doesn’t discriminate. It’s in every community. It’s in every neighborhood,” Herren has said. “My whole purpose in this is to break that stigma ... and eliminate the rock bottoms.”
About the data in this report
The key data used in this report came from The Washington Post, which obtained it in connection with litigation against opioid manufacturers and distributors.
In July, the newspaper posted online a massive database tracking the flow of every opioid pain pill, from manufacturer to pharmacy or doctor, in the United States between 2006 and 2012. The Post invited other journalists to download the data and use it in their reporting.
We extracted and analyzed the data for 16 of the 17 localities that make up the Richmond metropolitan area. (There were no pharmacies or doctors who received opioid pills in Charles City County.) Using Microsoft Access and Excel, we calculated the total doses sold by each pharmacy and in each locality.
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.