DEA statistics show painkiller sales up almost 90 percent since 1997

WASHINGTON The amount of five major painkillers sold at retail establishments rose 90 percent in the eight years up to 2005, according to an Associated Press analysis of statistics from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

According to the DEA statistics more than 200,000 pounds of codeine, morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone and meperidine were purchased at retail stores during 2005, the most recent year represented in the data.

Most of the increase can be attributed to oxycodone, the codeine derivative in Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin. Use of oxcodone jumped nearly six-fold between 1997 and 2005.

While the drug gained notoriety as "hillbilly heroin," because of the large amount sold illegally in Appalachia, its highest rates of sale now occur in places such as suburban St. Louis, Columbus, Ohio, and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the AP reported.

Legal sales of other pain killers are becoming more prevalent in rural and suburban areas alike. In Appalachia, retail sales of hydrocodone—sold mostly as Vicodin—are the highest in the nation. Nine of the 10 areas with the highest per-capita sales are in mostly rural parts of West Virginia, Kentucky or Tennessee. Sales of codeine, however, see some of their highest rates in communities around Kansas City, Mo., Nashville, Tenn. And throughout Long Island, N.Y.

Other findings from the Associated Press:

  • More people are abusing prescription painkillers because the medications are more available. Though the vast majority of people with prescriptions use the drugs safely, the number of emergency room visits from painkiller abuse has increased more than 160 percent since 1995, according to the government.

  • Many pain-management specialists now say they offer guidance and support to patients but will not write prescriptions, even for the sickest people. They cite high-profile arrests and prosecutions by state and federal authorities for their reluctance. The increase in painkiller retail sales continues to rise, but only barely. There was a 150 percent increase in volume in 2001. Four years later, the year-to-year increase was barely 2 percent.

The DEA cites more than 100 cases of physicians being prosecuted for illegally prescribing drugs to patients. Of those, 16 have been convicted while 83 pleaded guilty or no contest. Eight cases are still pending.

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