America's biggest drug companies churned out 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills from 2006 through 2012, fueling the nation's deadliest drug epidemic, data released as part of the largest civil action in U.S. history shows.
In an analysis of the data, The Washington Post reported just six companies distributed 75 percent of the pills during this period: McKesson Corp., Walgreens, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, CVS, and Walmart.
Three companies manufactured 88 percent of the opioids: SpecGx, a subsidiary of Mallinckrodt; Actavis Pharma; and Par Pharmaceutical, a subsidiary of Endo Pharmaceuticals.
Purdue Pharma, which the plaintiffs allege sparked the epidemic in the 1990s with its introduction of OxyContin, its version of oxycodone, was ranked fourth among manufacturers with about 3 percent of the market.
The volume of the pills handled by the companies skyrocketed as the epidemic surged, increasing about 51 percent from 8.4 billion in 2006 to 12.6 billion in 2012.
By contrast, doses of morphine, a well-known treatment for severe pain, averaged slightly more than 500 million a year during the period.
The surge of legal pain pills has resulted in nearly 100,000 deaths from 2006 through 2012, the Post noted.
The 10 companies along with about a dozen others are now being sued in federal court in Cleveland by nearly 2,000 cities, towns, and counties alleging they conspired to flood the nation with opioids, the Post reported.
The companies have paid more than $1 billion in fines to the Justice Department and Food and Drug Administration over opioid-related issues, and hundreds of millions more to settle state lawsuits, the Post noted.
But the previous cases addressed only a portion of the problem, never allowing the public to see the size and scope of the behavior underlying the epidemic. Monetary settlements by the companies were accompanied by agreements that kept such information hidden.
The drug companies, along with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Justice Department, have fought against the public release of the database, the Automation of Reports and Consolidated Order System, or ARCOS, the Post reported.
On Monday, U.S. District Judge Dan Polster removed the protective order for part of the ARCOS database.
The opioid litigation is now larger in scope than the tobacco litigation of the 1980s, which resulted in a $246 billion settlement over 25 years, the Post reported.
“The data provides statistical insights that help pinpoint the origins and spread of the opioid epidemic — an epidemic that thousands of communities across the country argue was both sparked and inflamed by opioid manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacies,” Paul Farrell Jr. of West Virginia, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs, told the Post.
The pain pill epidemic began nearly three decades ago, shortly after Purdue Pharma introduced what it marketed as a less addictive form of opioid it called OxyContin, the Post noted. Purdue paid doctors and nonprofit groups advocating for patients in pain to help market the drug as a safe and effective way to treat pain.
But the new drug was highly addictive. As more people were hooked, more companies entered the market, manufacturing, distributing and dispensing massive quantities of pain pills.
A decade ago, the DEA began cracking down on the industry, and as part of the effort, brought a series of civil enforcement cases against the largest distributors.
But as the companies paid fines and promised to do a better job of stopping suspicious orders, they continued to manufacture, ship and dispense large amounts of pills, according to the newly released data.
"The depth and penetration of the opioid epidemic becomes readily apparent from the data," Peter Mougey, a lawyer for the plaintiffs from Pensacola, Florida, told the Post.
"This disclosure will serve as a wake up call to every community in the country. America should brace itself for the harsh reality of the scope of the opioid epidemic. Transparency will lead to accountability."
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