New state data paints a grim picture on North Carolina’s opioid crisis: More prescriptions, more pills – and more deaths.
This week, two Charlotte-area counties became the latest local governments to join a massive federal lawsuit against the producers and distributors of opioids. Updated statistics from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Service gives a clearer picture of what the N.C. plaintiffs face:
▪ In 2016, more than 675 million of the powerful and addictive pain-killers were dispensed to North Carolina residents, a 52 percent increase over a five-year period. That breaks down to more than 65 pills for every man, woman and child in the state.
▪ In a third of North Carolina’s 100 counties, there were more opioid prescriptions than people.
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▪ Between 1999 and 2016, N.C. deaths tied to opioids grew by more than 900 percent.
This week, Gaston and Burke counties joined the nationwide list of more than 200 local governments who have added their names to the opioid suit. Mecklenburg and Catawba counties already are plaintiffs in the case. The governments allege that opioid industry leaders have been negligent in reporting suspicious orders and activities involving their drugs – as required by federal law.
In Gaston County, deaths tied to opioids have increased from 12 in 1999 to 57 in 2016.
The number of prescriptions have been falling in Gaston for a decade, state figures show. Yet the county’s 2016 prescription rate remained at 119 percent, meaning there were almost 20 percent more prescriptions written in Gaston for the controversial pain medication than the county has residents.
During a five-year period ending in 2016, the number of dispensed opioid pills in Gaston rose by 51 percent to more than 20.5 million. Based on the county’s estimated population, that averages out to some 95 pills per resident.
“Those pills get diverted into illegal markets and then people get addicted, and people are dying,” Winston-Salem attorney Paul Coates said during the press conference announcing the Gaston lawsuit.
The increased flow of the drugs throughout the Charlotte-area is strikingly similar. Burke, Cabarrus, Catawba and Iredell counties all saw the number of dispensed opioids jump by 50 to 55 percent over the last five years.
Burke, the smallest and most rural of the group, had an opioid-prescription rate in 2016 of 151 percent of its population, among the state’s highest. Opioid deaths there rose from one in 1999 to 26 in 2016.
The foothills county about 80 miles northwest of Charlotte also experienced a significant jump in the medically dispensed flow of the pain-killers. In 2016, that averaged out to some 120 pills for every resident.
In Mecklenburg and Wake, the state’s biggest counties, the number of dispensed opioids jumped by 64 percent and 76 percent, respectively, since 2011.
The opioid prescription rate in Mecklenburg fell to 54 percent in 2016, from a high of 69 percent in 2012. But deaths during that same period more than doubled, from 58 to 121.
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“Opioids cause much more pain than they relieve,” says Waynesville physician Don Teater, an expert in treating addictions to the drugs. In Haywood County, the amount of dispensed opioids rose by 60 percent over the last five years, the state says.
Other physicians say that when used properly, opioids can offer significant relief from severe or chronic pain. Any crackdown on the drugs, they say, could hurt those who need the drugs most.
Teater isn’t buying it. Along with the threat of addiction, he says, the drugs also can delay recoveries and increase the perception of pain.
“Prescribing 145 opioid pills after surgery may now be considered inadequate care,” Teater said in a recent column submitted to the Observer. “They should only be used in exceptional circumstances and for a very short period of time.”
The health risks have become obvious, he says.
Of the addicts he treats, Teater says half “were started down the path” by prescriptions written by their doctors that both met medical standards and yet were also unsafe.
Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS