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The opioid industry fought hard to keep this database hidden. Here’s what it shows

Over the past two decades, hundreds of thousands of Americans have died during a national opioid addiction crisis. As the drug manufacturers face a possible legal reckoning from multiple lawsuits, a newly uncovered database sheds more light on the scope of the disaster. William Brangham talks to Scott Higham, an investigative reporter for The Washington Post, about the "jaw-dropping" data.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This fall could see a legal reckoning for opioids manufacturers and distributors. States and cities are set to bring a series of national lawsuits that are expected to go to trial this fall.

    The epidemic has led to a series of tragic disasters that have unfolded over two decades involving addictions to opioids, heroin, and fentanyl in different waves. Hundreds of thousands of people have died throughout the country.

    Now, as William Brangham tells us, a new database has been unearthed that gives the largest look yet at the scope of the problem.

  • William Brangham:

    This database, which the industry and the government fought to keep secret, was dug out by an investigative team at The Washington Post. It is data collected by the Drug Enforcement Agency about every single opioid pill made, shipped and sold in the U.S. between 2006 and 2012.

    The Post analyzed the path of oxycodone and hydrocodone pills. Those were two of the key drugs in the genesis of the whole opioid crisis. And their analysis offers a jaw-dropping look at the tidal wave of drugs that washed across the country, some 76 billion pills in all.

    Scott Higham is one of The Washington Post reporters on this series. And he joins me now.

    Scott, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    And just an incredible piece of reporting and analysis that you guys have done here.

    Scott, I wonder if you could just walk us through some of the more striking findings from this database.

  • Scott Higham:

    You know, the sheer volume of pills that were spilled across the United States of America between 2006 through 2012 is just jaw-dropping.

    There were 76 billion pills that were distributed or dispensed across the country during that time frame, and 75 percent of those pills were distributed or dispensed by some of the biggest names in the drug industry, McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen, but also CVS, Walgreens, and Walmart.

    Those six companies distributed 75 percent of those 76 billion pills.

  • William Brangham:

    And the striking levels of saturation in some these communities, can you talk a little bit about that, about how — the simple volume of pills that were dispensed in these tiny communities?

  • Scott Higham:


    You know, the striking thing from this data is, is that little tiny towns in rural America were heavily hit by this epidemic. Pharmacies that served, you know, just a few thousand people received millions and millions of pills.

    And, you know, under federal law, the companies that are shipping these pills and dispensing these pills are under an obligation to report suspicious orders, and, a lot of times, they didn't. And, you know, it looks pretty suspicious when you have a small pharmacy in a small town dispensing millions and millions of hydrocodone and oxycodone tablets.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right.

    I mean, this database, as you say, if you look at it from a sales perspective, it's the kind of chart you like to see, sales going through the roof.

    If you look at it from a regulatory perspective, this is a road map of red flags that the companies should have seen. Can you explain a little bit about — a little more about what the companies are supposed to do if you see sales spiking like they were?

  • Scott Higham:


    I mean, this is a closed, a tightly regulated system. It starts at the top of manufacturers. In the middle are the distributors, and at the bottom are the retailers, the pharmacies, and then the doctors on the street level.

    And so, if there's a break in that closed system anywhere along the line, pills start leaking out. So, everybody in the system has a responsibility to report suspicious orders, to report suspicious prescriptions, and they're supposed to report those to the DEA, and stop those sales from going through.

    And time and time again, they didn't report those suspicious orders and they let those sales fly.

  • William Brangham:

    And what have these companies said about their failure to do that, those requirements under the law?

  • Scott Higham:

    Well, you know, they blame this on overprescribing doctors, on corrupt doctors.

    And they also blame it on people who have misused these pills and become addicts. And they blame the DEA for not doing a better job of monitoring the situation.

  • William Brangham:

    There's the there are two maps in your reporting that are pretty striking in the correlation they seem to indicate.

    One of them is where the pills went. That's the data in red. And the other is where opioid-related deaths occurred. And that's the map in blue. And it doesn't take a data scientist to see the correlation there.

  • Scott Higham:

    No. You know, it's quite stunning.

    And Steven Rich, who's our database editor, took the pill data from the DEA database that we won access to in a court fight — it took us a year to get that database — he took that database, and then he meshed that with the CDC prescription death database.

    And so what you see is, the areas with the heaviest concentration of pain pills are also areas with the heaviest losses of human life. Everybody has thought that they knew this, but you don't know you know it until you see the data, you see it line up.

    And it's just stunning. There are places in West Virginia, Southern Virginia, all throughout Appalachia where the death rate is 12, 13 times higher than the national average in places where millions and millions of pills came into these communities.

  • William Brangham:

    You have now posted this database on your Web site, and it's searchable.

    Help me understand what people can do with that database now.

  • Scott Higham:

    So, you can go on, and you can take a look and see, state by state, county by county, how many pills came into your community, who shipped them, who dispensed them, and who manufactured them.

    So this is data that the DEA has kept secret for many, many years, the industry has kept secret for many, many years. This is the industry's own data that they report to the DEA. They fought very, very hard for the public not to see this.

    And now that we have — we won our court case, we believe that this is a true public service, that the public deserves to see this. And every citizen in every place in America can now go online and take a look and see what exactly happened in their community.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Scott Higham of The Washington Post, thank you very, very much.

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