Release of Federal Database Reveals 76 Billion Opioid Pills Were Sold in the U.S. From 2006-2012


From 2006 to 2012 more than 76 billion opioid pain pills were sold in the United States, with three pharmaceutical manufacturing companies behind 88 percent of those, according to an analysis of a federal database maintained by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

Late Tuesday, the Washington Post released its analysis of the database that showed the three companies that manufactured the most oxycodone and hydrocodone pain pills during that six-year period were U.K.-based Mallinckrodt, Actavis Pharma and Par Pharmaceutical, a subsidiary of Endo Pharmaceuticals, which was the first company the U.S.Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asked to remove an opioid product from the marketplace. Purdue Pharmaceuticals, which has become the poster-company of the opioid abuse crisis due to its aggressive marketing tactics, came in fourth on the manufacturing list. The OxyContin maker had about 3 percent of the market during that time, although the company has been accused of aggressively selling its painkiller since the 1990s. Oxycodone and hydrocodone make up about three-fourths of the types of opioids sent to pharmacies during this time period, the Post noted.

During the 2006 to 2012 period, the number of opioid pills on the market shot up 51 percent, the Post said in its analysis, from 8.4 billion pills in 2006 to 12.6 billion in 2012. During that time frame, approximately 100,000 people died from opioid-related overdoses. In 2017, opioids were responsible for the deaths of about 47,000 people in the United States.

Alongside the drug manufacturers, the Post’s analysis also pointed to the six biggest distributers of opioids during that time frame: Walgreens, McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health, CVS, Walmart and AmerisourceBergen.

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The DEA database also revealed some surprising information about what the companies knew about the number of pills entering the market. The database provided information about the exact number of pills being dispensed, when the companies were made aware of the volume of pills being dispensed, as well as year by year and town by town information, the Post said. The evidence seems rather damning particularly as these companies are the subject of thousands of lawsuits from state and local governments. The Post noted that the companies “allowed the drugs to reach the streets of communities large and small, despite persistent red flags that those pills were being sold in apparent violation of federal law and diverted to the black market.”

The information in the database had long been held secret. However, a judicial order prompted the release of data up to 2013. U.S. District Judge Dan Polster said there is no basis for shielding older data, the Tribune Chronicle reported. The database information was released as part of ongoing opioid litigation in Ohio that targets manufacturers and distributors of opioids that have devastated communities across that state, as well as others. The lawsuits in Ohio target multiple opioid manufacturers, including Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Purdue Pharma, Teva Pharmaceuticals and Cephalon, as well as the primary distributors.  

In response to the release of the information in the database, a Mallinckrodt spokesperson told the Post that the company “produced opioids only within a government-controlled quota and sold only to DEA-approved distributors.” Actavis was acquired by Teva Pharmaceutical in 2016. A spokesperson for Israel-based Teva said the company is unable to speak about any systems regarding distribution that had been in place prior to the acquisition.

The release of the information from the DEA database will likely be seen as a boon from plaintiffs in the thousands of cases against the opioid manufacturers and distributors. A large number of lawsuits argue that opioid manufacturers and distributors used misleading marketing practices that contributed to high levels of addition. Additionally, the lawsuits argue that the companies downplayed concerns over abuse and were complicit in a large number of opioid deliveries to certain pharmacies in areas hard hit by the epidemic.  

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