The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New opioid data spurs widespread condemnation, calls for action

Five-milligram oxycodone pills. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

The Washington Post recently published a massive database that tracks the distribution of opioids in the United States from 2006 to 2012, specifically where — and how many — drugs materialized. During that period, 76 billion prescription pain pills were manufactured and shipped to pharmacies all over the country, fueling a public health epidemic that killed 100,000 Americans in those seven years.

Policymakers, media outlets and others are using this data to understand the sheer scope of the crisis, and many are demanding accountability.

Internal drug company emails show indifference to opioid epidemic

‘Those who push poison into our kids and communities will be held to account'

White House counselor Kellyanne Conway touted the president’s efforts to tackle the opioid crisis, arguing in a statement Monday that the Trump administration “has tackled it head on” while the Obama administration “ignored the growing drug crisis roiling this country.”

Conway said the White House is “watching as authorities name and shame those responsible” for the crisis.

“Those who push poison into our kids and communities will be held to account,” she said. “The sheer number of pills flooding numerous corners of this country while politicians looked the other way is an alarming disgrace that has cost thousands of lives and ruined many more.”

‘Corporate greed:’ 2020 Democratic presidential candidates demand action

Senators and Democratic presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), as well as former housing secretary Julián Castro and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, tweeted about the data.

Warren and Castro accused Big Pharma of “corporate greed.” Warren also promoted her legislation to invest $100 billion over 10 years to combat the epidemic, which hasn’t gained any traction in Congress. Harris said, “It’s past time we hold pharmaceutical companies accountable.” Klobuchar called it “disturbing” and shared a quote from internal emails included in a court filing showing a drug company employee comparing the pills to “Doritos” that people “keep eating.”

Bullock focused his ire on the influence that Big Pharma’s deep pockets have on Washington.

‘My Department of Justice will go after these folks’

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who is also running for president, was asked about the data during a Washington Post Live event, specifically whether he’d want his Justice Department to prosecute drug companies.

“My Department of Justice will go after these folks, these pharmaceutical companies that have been fueling this opioid crisis, where it was an intentional strategy to juice the addiction of Americans to this drug, causing our life expectancy as a nation to go down,” Booker said. “This is criminal behavior, immoral behavior, and my DOJ will go after it.”

At a Washington Post Live event, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker said his administration would go after pharmaceutical companies that have fueled the opioid crisis. (Video: Washington Post Live)

‘It got worse and worse and worse over time’

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow dedicated a lengthy segment on Friday night to the searchable county-by-county opioid database. Maddow broke down some of the statistics for her viewers, saying “it got worse and worse and worse over time.”

“As the opioid crisis lit the country on fire and the death rates started skyrocketing and the country started freaking out about it, over the course of those seven years from 2006 to 2012, while 100,000 Americans were killed from those drugs, we can now tell they kept upping the number they were shipping every year,” Maddow said.

“By 2012, they were shipping on average 36 highly addictive pain pills for every man, woman and child and baby in the United States,” Maddow added.

The Opioid Files: Follow The Post’s investigation of the opioid epidemic

McConnell challenger turns opioids data political

Amy McGrath, the Democrat hoping to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, one of the states hit hardest by the opioid crisis, used the database Thursday to assail McConnell’s ties to drug companies.

McConnell, who has been majority or minority leader since 2007, did not comment on The Post’s database. But about 90 minutes after McGrath’s tweet, he shared news that drug overdose deaths fell in Kentucky in 2018, the same year Congress passed its first comprehensive bipartisan opioid legislation and 12 years since the drug companies opened the floodgates.

Local media digs into data

Reporters from coast to coast used the database to expose the amount of prescription opioid pills that flowed to their communities.

For example, Kenny Choi of KPIX-TV in San Francisco tweeted:

Christine Kennedy, a nurse and academic dean at the University of Virginia, shared a local newspaper article that, using the database, reported that a small pharmacy in a town of 1,000 people had acquired 7.7 million pills.

‘Sociopathic fashion’

Experts who have been following the opioid crisis closely for years offered their view of what the database adds to the nation’s understanding of how and why it got so bad.

Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University professor who advised Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama on drug policy, said the database reminds him of the documents related to tobacco litigation, but worse.

“The number of people who conducted themselves in a sociopathic fashion was large but also the number of people who failed to do their jobs: doctors, pharmacists, regulators, DEA agents,” he said. “It really, unfortunately will, I think, confirm in the minds of people who think that nobody cares about them that, in fact nobody cares about them … the people who are supposed to watch over you.”

Daniel Ciccarone, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco who studies drug abuse, said the database shows the complex nature of how this epidemic — which is now on its third wave with fentanyl — started.

“We love to know that there’s one problem with one culprit and one solution and it is simply not true in the opioid epidemic. In Wave 1 is it all Purdue Pharma? No. it’s Walgreens, it’s McKesson, all involved in excess prescribing and distribution of pills,” he said. “The epidemic itself is far more complicated.”

Post readers

The Post received hundreds of reader responses from people who had lost loved ones to the opioid crisis and also chronic pain patients who feel the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, limiting their ability to obtain the drugs.

How has your community been affected by the opioid crisis? Help us understand the data on pain pills.

Scott Higham contributed to this report.

More coverage from The Opioid Files:

Five takeaways from the DEA’s pain pill database

Distributors, pharmacies and manufacturers respond to previously unreleased DEA data about opioid sales

A remote Virginia valley has been flooded by prescription opioids