NEW YORK — Sales of the nation's two most popular prescription painkillers have exploded in new parts of the country, an Associated Press analysis shows, worrying experts who say the push to relieve patients' suffering is spawning an addiction epidemic.
From New York's Staten Island to Santa Fe, N.M., Drug Enforcement Administration figures show dramatic rises between 2000 and 2010 in the distribution of oxycodone, the key ingredient in OxyContin, Percocet and Percodan. Some places saw sales increase sixteenfold.
The AP analysis underscores the difficulty of Florida's battle against "pill mills," unscrupulous doctors who churn out dozens of prescriptions a day.
In 2000, Florida's oxycodone sales were centered around West Palm Beach. By 2010, oxycodone was flowing to nearly every part of the state, the analysis shows.
The increases have coincided with a wave of overdose deaths, pharmacy robberies and other problems in New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Florida and other states. Opioid pain relievers, the category that includes oxycodone and hydrocodone, caused 14,800 overdose deaths in 2008 alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
Nationwide, pharmacies received and ultimately dispensed the equivalent of 69 tons of pure oxycodone and 42 tons of pure hydrocodone in 2010, the last year for which statistics are available. That's enough to give 40 5mg Percocets and 24 5mg Vicodins to every person in the United States.
The increase is partly due to the aging U.S. population with pain issues and a greater willingness by doctors to treat pain, said Gregory Bunt, medical director at New York's Daytop Village chain of drug treatment clinics.
Sales are also being driven by addiction, as users begin "doctor shopping" to keep the prescriptions coming, he said.
The AP analysis used drug data collected quarterly by the DEA's Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System. The DEA tracks shipments sent from distributors to pharmacies, hospitals, practitioners and teaching institutions and then compiles the data using three digits of ZIP codes. Every ZIP code starting with 100-, for example, is lumped together into one figure.
The AP combined this data with census figures to determine effective sales per capita.
A few ZIP codes that include military bases or Veterans Affairs hospitals have seen large increases in painkiller use because of soldier patients, law enforcement officials say.
Per capita oxycodone sales increased five- or six-fold in most of Tennessee during the decade.
"We've got a problem. We've got to get a handle on it," said Tommy Farmer, a counterdrug official with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
Many buyers began crossing into Tennessee to fill prescriptions after border states began strengthening computer systems meant to monitor drug sales, Farmer said.
In 2006, only 20 states had prescription drug monitoring programs aimed at tracking patients. Now 40 do — including Florida — but many aren't linked together.
Oxycodone sales also increased dramatically in New York City and its suburbs.
New York's Long Island has seen huge increases. In Islip, N.Y., teenager Makenzie Emerson says she started stealing oxycodone that her mother was prescribed in 2009 after a fall on ice. Soon Emerson was popping six pills at a time.
One day she overdosed at the mall. Her mother, Phyllis Ferraro, tried to keep her daughter breathing until the ambulance arrived.
"The pills are everywhere," Ferraro said. "There aren't enough treatment centers and yet there's a pharmacy on every corner."