Williamson, WV — An ongoing investigation by the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee has revealed pharmaceutical companies flooding small towns in West Virginia with opioid pain pills between 2006 and 2016.
In fact, a pair of letters released by the committee on Tuesday revealed that between those years, drug companies shipped 20.8 million oxycodone and hydrocodone pills to two pharmacies only blocks apart in the rural town of Williamson, West Virginia, which has a population of about 3,000 according to the 2010 U.S. census.
That figure breaks down to more than 6,500 pills per resident.
“These numbers are outrageous, and we will get to the bottom of how this destruction was able to be unleashed across West Virginia,” ranking member Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) and committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) said in a joint statement to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
The U.S. is currently in the midst of an epidemic of opioid-related overdose deaths, which the Center for Disease Control estimates at 115 opioid related deaths daily, with West Virginia having the highest overdose death rate in the nation.
The letters released by the committee specifically addressed the distribution practices of two regional drug distributors, Ohio-based Miami-Luken and Illinois-based HD Smith, as part of an ongoing probe into “pill dumping.”
So how did the practice of mass prescribing addictive opioids begin?
One need only look to Purdue Pharma, and the Sackler family, to better understand the acceptance of these powerful painkillers for everyday medical issues.
As I previously reported for The Free Thought Project, the Sackler family, which owns 100 percent of Purdue Pharma, has amassed the 16th largest family fortune in the U.S. — estimated to be worth $14 billion dollars by Forbes in 2015 — by distributing the highly addictive, and often deadly, opiate painkiller OxyContin as a purportedly non-addictive version of oxycodone, labeling it as “abuse resistant.”
Purdue Pharma has generated estimated sales of over $35 billion dollars since releasing OxyContin in 1996. In that first year, the drug accounted for about $48 million in sales, and by 2000 that number had skyrocketed to $1.1 billion, an increase of over 2,000 percent in just four years.
By 2010, OxyContin would account for annual profits of $3.1 billion. Simply put, this family controlled almost one-third of the U.S. prescription pain business in America.
In a seemingly methodical manner, Purdue Pharma, under the guidance of brothers Arthur, Raymond, and Mortimer Sackler, began a campaign to promote their new drug, as described in The American Journal of Public Health, “The Promotion and Marketing of OxyContin: Commercial Triumph, Public Health Tragedy.”
One of the primary missions of Purdue Pharma was to identify the doctors across America prescribing the most pain medication and strategically marketed the drug directly to them as a “safe” alternative to other pain medications.
A report in The Week explains how the prevalence of opioids leading to the nationwide epidemic came to fruition:
“During its rise in popularity, there was a suspicious undercurrent to the drug’s spectrum of approved uses and Purdue Pharma’s relationship to the physicians that were suddenly privileging OxyContin over other meds to combat everything from back pain to arthritis to post-operative discomfort. It would take years to discover that there was much more to the story than the benign introduction of a new, highly effective painkiller…
“Perhaps knowing that doctors would be vigilant against prescribing drugs with the potential for abuse, Purdue set out to distinguish OxyContin from rivals as soon as it dropped. The cornerstone of its marketing campaign was the drug’s incredibly low risk of addiction, an enviable characteristic made possible by its patented time-release formula. Through an array of promotional materials, including literature, brochures, videotapes, and Web content, Purdue proudly asserted that the potential for addiction was very small, at one point stating it to be “less than 1 percent.”
The actions of Purdue Pharma, and their aggressive marketing to doctors with a proclivity to already administer pain pills loosely, are often cited as a primary driver of the deadly opioid epidemic now gripping the country. Prior to this time, doctors were reluctant to prescribe strong opioids, except for end-of-life palliative care and acute cancer pain, due the extremely addictive nature of these drugs.
Last year, there were 13 fatal drug overdoses in West Virginia’s Mingo County, of which Williamson is the county seat, and 711 deaths from drugs in the 54 other counties that make up the state, according to the West Virginia Health Statistics Center, as reported by NBC.
NBC went on to report that committee questioned the drug companies regarding whether they believed that such a large amounts of pills, going to such small towns, was appropriate or raised any “red flags”:
“In the letter to Miami-Luken, they asked whether the company made any attempt “to understand why the number of pills that it sent to Tug Valley Pharmacy increased by over 350 percent over a single year period from 2008 to 2009.”
In the letter to H.D. Smith president J. Christopher Smith, the lawmakers asked why the company supplied the two Williamson pharmacies with ‘39,000 hydrocodone pills over a two-day period in October 2007.’
‘If so, were any red flags raised about potentially suspicious orders, and were any suspicious order reports submitted to the DEA?’ they wrote.
Both companies were given until Feb. 9 to answer their questions.”
The Gazette report noted that West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey was a one-time lobbyist for a trade group that represented drug companies, including Miami-Luken.
Interestingly, several lawsuits against the company, filed by the West Virginia’s previous AG, Darrell McGraw, which charged that the drug companies had flooded the state with opioid pain pills, were settled by Morrisey in 2016.