Nearly five million pills in Attala Co. I

Information released by The Washington Post, which obtained a Drug Enforcement Administration database of opioid prescriptions, proves two things: The prescription drug problem is as serious as advertised, and it also was very, very good business.

The Post, which went to court with a West Virginia newspaper to get the DEA’s information, originally reported that drug manufacturers sold 76 billion prescription oxycodone and hydrocodone pills in a seven-year period from 2006 to 2012. This figure did not include sales of other opioids.

The Post reported that 100,000 people died of opioid-related problems during that period. Frankly, with that much heroin-related medication sloshing around the country, it’s a wonder the death toll wasn’t a lot higher.

The Post then provided a way for the public to see the local effect of opioid sales. Simply click on a state, and then a county, and you get the total number of oxy and hydro pills delivered to that county between 2006 and 2012. You can also see which drug companies sold the medication and the pharmacies or medical offices that dispensed it.

In Attala County, there were 4,730,760 oxycodone and hydrocodone pills distributed, or 34 pills per person per year, based on the 2010 population of 19,488.

The Post noted that the DEA information does not specify how many pills dispensed in a county went to residents of that same county. In many cases, it’s reasonable to assume that a percentage of those sold in a county went to residents of other counties.

None of this should ignore the need for pain-relief medication. There are a number of very valid reasons to prescribe strong pain relievers. Recovery from surgery or treatment of a chronic medical condition are two examples.

But you’d have to be blind or willfully ignorant to argue that the 102,746 residents of these local counties had legitimate pain problems that required more than 22 million oxycodone and hydrocodone pills over a seven-year period. These numbers make it painfully obvious that a lot of patients had become addicted to opioids. Others probably were selling them for the cash.

The DEA information leaves some questions unanswered. It lists that pharmacies that filled the prescriptions — but it does not provide information on the doctors who wrote them. That is an important omission of data that may be helpful in understanding the origins of opioid over-prescription.

And the database, to some extent, is out of date. Its information is between 7 and 13 years old. Still, the timeframe coincides with the timeframe in which the opioid crisis had its origins.

The crackdown on opioid prescriptions since 2012 has to have greatly reduced these numbers. Given the release of this database, it would be informative to see how much opioid prescriptions have declined since then.

There are at least two roots of the opioid problem. One was overlooking the dangers of the drugs. Looking back, that seems bizarre, but manufacturers assured lawmakers that the medication was safe, and these companies may pay billions for getting it so badly wrong.

The other factor, regrettably, was the profit motive. Everybody made money on opioids, but there was not enough focus on the pain these drugs brought to so many people.