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Opioid crisis update: a Q & A on the ongoing epidemic

According to a newly released federal database, big drug companies pushed out an astonishing 76 billion opioid pain pills between 2006 and 2012. This led to an addiction crisis that continues to kill thousands of people every year.

In this post, we will use a Q & A format to update you on the newly available database and other key developments in the opioid crisis.

What is the federal database on opioid pills and what types of information does it contain?

The database is called ARCOS. This is a shorthand for Automation of Reports and Consolidated Order System.

Maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the database tracks all of the pain pills sold and distributed in the U.S. It contains a very detailed transactional history. This includes not only the names of all buyers and sellers, but dosage units and weights in grams of the opioids sold.

When did the information from the database become available?

The pharmaceutical industry had long fought to keep the ARCOS database from becoming public. But a federal judge recently ordered it to be disclosed.

This came in a case brought by hundreds of municipalities against big pharma companies, drug distributors and pharmaceutical chains. The case is expected to go to trial in October.

What consequences have the drug companies and distributors faced so far?

State and local governments have filed hundreds of lawsuits against drug manufacturers and distributors s over damage done by this epidemic. The suits have already produced hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements and federal agencies have imposed more than $1 billion in fines.

Overall, opioid litigation is expected to surpass the total amount of liability of the tobacco litigation of the 1980s and 1990s. That litigation produced a settlement of $246 billion between the tobacco industry and the attorneys general of multiple states.

What types of defenses are drug companies and distributors trying to use?

Drug companies tend to try blaming the opioid epidemic on overprescribing by doctors and on pharmacies complicit in that practice. The drug companies also often blame the victim - claiming that opioid patients abused perfectly legitimate painkillers.

As we discussed in a recent post, however, numerous lawsuits alleged that drug companies essentially paid doctors to prescribe excessive opioids. The companies did this with payments for speaking engagements, consulting, research and related matters.

Where does Tennessee rank among states for concentration of opioid pills?

According to the ARCOS database, Tennessee ranked in the top five states in the country for distribution of painkiller pills between 2006 and 2012. West Virginia led the nation with 66.5 pills per person, but Tennessee was fourth with 57.7.

Tennessee has also had an above-average rate of opioid overdose deaths. In 2017, it was 19.3 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to a national rate of 14.6 per 100,000. In Georgia, by comparison, the rate was 9.7 deaths per 100,000 people and in Alabama it was 21.7.

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