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More pain pills were handed out on average per person in Penobscot County than in any other New England county between 2006 and 2012.
That revelation comes after the Washington Post on Tuesday released an analysis of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration database, made public for the first time, that tracks the path of every pain pill distributed in the U.S.
The Washington Post analysis found just six companies — McKesson, Walgreens, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergan, CVS and Walmart — distributed 75 percent of the pills nationally over the six-year period. Overall, America’s largest drug companies distributed 76 billion opioid pills as the nation entered a deepening drug crisis that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
The public release of the database, which comes as opioid manufacturers such as Perdue Pharma face lawsuits over their alleged role in the opioid epidemic, followed a year-long fight by the Washington Post and HD Media to make the database public.
In Maine, 56 pain pills per person were distributed in Penobscot County on average each year over that six-year period, the largest number for any other county in the state — and New England. Somerset (52.1), Kennebec (49.7), Piscataquis (48.5) and Washington (47.5) counties were among the five Maine counties with the highest per person distribution of pain pills.
Across the region, only one county from outside Maine cracked the top five — Kent County, Rhode Island, where 48.8 pain pills were distributed per person. Only seven other New England counties saw more pain pills distributed per person than any Maine county — Grafton County, New Hampshire (38.5); Dukes County, Massachusetts (38.5;) Hampden County, Massachusetts (37.5); Merrimack County, New Hampshire (36.7); Strafford County, New Hampshire (36.5); Windham County, Vermont (35.7); and Berkshire County, Massachusetts (35.5).
The five Maine counties, clustered predominantly near the coast, that saw the lowest number of pain pills distributed per person were Sagadahoc (35.3), York (35.5), Waldo (36.5), Lincoln (36.6) and Oxford (36.6).
In response to the opioid epidemic, Maine adopted stronger restrictions on opioid prescriptions that went into effect in January 2017. Those limit the amount of opioids a doctor can prescribe for a single patient and require doctors to screen patients through the state’s prescription monitoring program to crack down on “doctor shopping.”
During the first year when those rules took effect, the state saw opioid prescriptions drop 13 percent over the previous year, continuing an overall decline that began in 2013. That trend continued last year, when Maine doctors issued 14.1 percent fewer prescriptions over the year before.
Even with a years-long decline in opioid prescriptions, widely seen as the root of the opioid epidemic, drug overdose deaths in the state continued a steady climb until 2018, when 354 people died as a result of an overdose — a 15 percent decline over 2017. Only 22 percent of those deaths were attributed to prescription opioids. The bulk of the deaths were attributed to opioids such as heroin and fentanyl. That decline could continue into 2019, with the Maine attorney general’s office reporting that overdose deaths have fallen 14 percent for the first quarter of the year, compared with the same period in 2018.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday released early data that showed nearly 68,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2018. That number may rise as more investigations are complete, but the CDC expects the number to remain below 69,000, representing the first time overdose deaths have declined nationally in three decades.
Related: The opioid crisis in Maine