Kentucky’s painkiller sales plateau

PIKEVILLE, Ky. (AP) – Purchases of prescription painkillers have soared in Kentucky in recent years, but experts say the trend is leveling off.

Purchases of five major painkillers increased 62 percent in Kentucky between 1997 and 2005, while the nation saw an 88 percent hike, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of statistics from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The figures are based on purchases at retail stores.

Purchases of oxycodone _ the main ingredient in brand-name OxyContin _ quadrupled in Kentucky in that time period. Sales of hydrocodone, which has quietly outpaced other painkillers in recent years, has more than doubled.

Morphine purchases in Kentucky showed an 88 percent increase, far below the national 154 percent jump. However, purchases of codeine, an opiate, dropped 50 percent and meperidine, commonly sold as Demerol, dropped 12 percent.

Kentucky ranks 43rd in the nation in terms of increases in prescription painkiller purchases, according to the AP analysis. The seven states that border Kentucky were ranked as follows: No. 1, Tennessee; No. 7, Missouri; No. 14, West Virginia; No. 30, Ohio; No. 35 Virginia; No. 42, Indiana; No. 50, Illinois.

While Kentucky’s low ranking seems to signal improvement, experts cautioned that the state’s painkiller epidemic is merely leveling off with a large number of patients still abusing pills.

“We’ve been fighting this in Kentucky for several years,” said Robert Walker, researcher at the University of Kentucky Center on Drug and Alcohol Research. “We had the OxyContin explosion in early 2000. What we’re seeing now is rest of nation catching up to where we were.”

Experts blame Appalachia’s drug prescription drug problem on two issues: dangerous industries, such as coal mining, and intense marketing by pharmaceutical companies.

“For decades, labor-intensive industries supported our economy and people got hurt on the job. There was a need for pain killers for legitimate injuries,” said U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., said in a statement to the AP. “Unfortunately, giant pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma exploited that, aggressively marketing OxyContin to unsuspecting doctors.”

Purdue Pharma L.P., the maker of OxyContin, and three of its current and former executives recently pleaded guilty to misleading the public about the drug’s risk of addiction.

OxyContin has been blamed for hundreds of deaths across the country in recent years, becoming known as “hillbilly heroin” in Appalachian states like Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. But OxyContin’s highest rates of sale now occur in places like suburban St. Louis; Columbus, Ohio; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

As most of the nation continues to experience a surge in painkiller purchases, Kentucky’s purchases appear to have plateaued since 2003.

Part of the trend is due to a crackdown on OxyContin prescriptions and sales, which have dropped dramatically in most parts of the state from 2003 to 2005.

Meanwhile, purchases of hydrocodone _ an analgesic which doesn’t have as many restrictions as more potent drugs, like oxycodone _ have increased annually.

Authorities mainly credit Operation UNITE, a regional drug task force overseeing most of southeastern Kentucky since 2004, for hindering purchases of prescription painkillers.

Rogers, who established the federally funded program to fight eastern Kentucky’s drug problem, noted UNITE has confiscated over 50,000 prescription pain pills and arrested more than 1,800 people.

“We’re seeing decreases in whole eastern Kentucky area, though they still have the highest amounts in the state,” said Dave Sailings, an analyst with KASPER, Kentucky’s tracking system for controlled substance prescriptions dispensed within the state.

However, as authorities try to combat the problem within state lines, more people are crossing borders to fill prescriptions.

Hundreds of patients take part in “doctor shopping” for pills, said Van Ingram of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.

“There’s not very many places in Kentucky that you can live and not be within proximity of a border with another state,” he said. “There is a lot of crossing over of our patients into surrounding states.”