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5 takeaways from new data on Florida’s opioid crisis

Which ZIP code received the most pills? Which corporations distributed them? Which politicians do they support?
(Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
(Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Published Jul. 26, 2019
Updated Jul. 26, 2019

Newly released data from the Drug Enforcement Agency and published by the Washington Post form a treasure trove of information about the power players inextricably tied to the opioid epidemic.

Related: Florida’s opioid crisis: billions of pills, millions in campaign cash

The records, obtained after the Post and HD Media sued to make the database public, show shipments, down to a pill, of hydrocodone and oxycodone. We know which companies made the drugs, which companies distributed them and which pharmacies received them.

Florida was already known as a state key to the health crisis — a place where lax regulations on pain clinics drew addicts from across the country.

Now we know much more.

1. Tampa Bay was a hotspot.

Nationally, between 2006 and 2012, pharmacies bought enough opioids to give everyone in the country 36 pills per year. The rate was even higher in and around Tampa Bay — Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota counties all received more per person than the national average. Pills flowed into Hernando County at nearly twice the national average, ranking second in the state behind North Florida’s Baker County.

Tampa, Florida’s third-largest city by population, ranked first in the total number of pills — receiving 410 million tablets in the period.

2. Five of the top 10 pharmacies were in Tampa

Ten pharmacies received more than 10 million pills over the period. Five of them are in Tampa.

BuyerCityPills, 2006-2012
2PMSI, LLCTAMPA26,253,800

3. The top distributors were named in Pam Bondi’s lawsuit.

Pam Bondi, seen here in 2018.  [AP Photo | J. Scott Applewhite]
Pam Bondi, seen here in 2018. [AP Photo | J. Scott Applewhite]

The top five opioid distributors by volume over the period — Walgreens, Cardinal Health, McKesson, CVS and AmerisourceBergen — were all named in former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s high-profile lawsuit. Those five companies moved 4.4 billion pills in those seven years. “Walgreens and CVS joined the race to sell as many opioids as possible, including by failing to institute safeguards and by marketing opioids to their vast networks of retail pharmacy stores and in-store pharmacists,” Bondi’s team said.

4. But the next biggest distributors, not yet named in the lawsuit, are also household names.

Ranking sixth and seventh among Florida’s top opioid distributors: Walmart and Publix. The two supermarket behemoths received more than 483 million pills to their pharmacies during the period, more than 8 percent of the market. Walmart ranked sixth nationally, but Publix, which only has locations in the U.S. South, is a much smaller player outside of Florida.

5. Opioid manufacturers and distributors are political heavy hitters

[ZACHARY SAMPSON   |   Tampa Bay Times]
[ZACHARY SAMPSON | Tampa Bay Times]

Florida’s top manufacturers and distributors (the 15 companies responsible for making and distributing 90 percent of the state’s opioids) have given more than $22 million in state campaign contributions since 1993. That includes money directly from the corporations, as well as from top executives.

Publix led the way, with more than $13.8 million. Walmart, Walgreens, Actavis and CVS have all given six-figure amounts.

“You had pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies that had enormous amounts of influence in Tallahassee through donations of course to campaigns and to political parties,” said Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, a longtime former Republican state lawmaker.

The top recipients were committees connected to pro-business groups like the Chamber of Commerce (which received more than $4.3 million) and the Florida Retail Federation ($3.3 million). The Republican Party directly received $3.9 million, and the Democratic Party took nearly $900,000.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: A prior version of the story incorrectly ranked Walmart and Publix among the state’s top opioid distributors. The companies rank sixth and seventh.)

Times/Herald staff writer Emily L. Mahoney contributed reporting.