New data show that as pharmaceutical companies flooded Oregon with pain pills, they pounded the Oregon Coast especially hard.
Four of the five Oregon counties that prescribed the most opioid pills per person each year between 2006 and 2012 were on or near the coast. That's one of the findings collected by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and published last week by The Washington Post.
Doctors in Curry County, a Pacific coast county on the border of California, prescribed enough opioids to give each person living there 83 pain pills a year. Josephine County, just east of Curry, wasn't far behind—prescriptions there would have given each county resident 79 pills a year.
"Some of the answer is probably in population makeup," says Delia Hernández, an Oregon Health Authority spokeswoman. Rural counties tend to have older populations, economies more dependant on physical labor, and fewer medical options available to patients.
"This is not just happening in Oregon," Hernández says. "Generally, rural areas have more prescribing than urban areas."
This happened during a time when pharmaceutical companies, like OxyContin manufacturer Purdue Pharma, were heavily advertising their pills without warning patients about the high risk of addiction. During that time, Oregon grappled with opioid prescription and addiction rates much higher than the national average.
Five Oregonians die each week, on average, from opioid overdoses, according to the Oregon Health Authority. But since 2006, the agency says prescription opioid overdoses have decreased by 45 percent, and the number of opioid prescriptions in Oregon has been on a steady decline.
The Oregon Coast fits the demographic profile most commonly associated with opioid addiction: It's white, blue-collar and economically depressed. Many of the coastal counties with the highest prescription rates were historically timber counties, and have struggled to replace those jobs.
In 2014, WW reported on a DEA bust at an alleged pill mill, the Rinehart Clinic in Tillamook County ("Harry Rinehart's House of Pain," WW, June 24, 2014). The clinic is still operating nearly four years later. A pharmacy closely connected to the Rinehart Clinic was shut down by the DEA in 2010 after discovering pharmacists there were selling opioids to people without prescriptions. Tillamook County was fifth in prescriptions per capita in the newly reported figures.
Portland has seen its own opioid spike. But Multnomah County fell in the middle of the pack, with an average prescription rate of 53 pills per person each year. (Morrow County, on Oregon's northern border east of The Dalles, had the lowest rate of opioid prescriptions: 15 pills per person each year.)
Here's where the most pills per person were prescribed.
County / Pills per person per year
Curry / 83
Josephine / 79
Lincoln / 77
Wasco / 75
Tillamook / 73