DEA data highlights Dare’s pain pill problem

By on July 27, 2019

(credit: The National Institute on Drug Abuse)

The numbers released last week seemed stunning. According to a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) database, nearly 13 million prescription opioid pain pills were distributed in Dare County in the years from 2006 through 2012 — the equivalent of 54 pills for each Dare resident each year.

The Washington Post published that eye-catching database on July 21, one that sheds light on the nation’s dangerous and deadly opioid epidemic. It was made available as a result of a federal court order and it tracks each pain pill sold in the United States. It revealed that more than 76 billion such pills were distributed across the nation in the seven years from 2006 through 2012.

(To access that database, log on to:

While Dare County didn’t lead the state in the number of pills per person from 2006-2102, some of its neighbors used significantly fewer. Currituck County, for example, came in at 15.4 pills per person while Tyrell County registered at 32 per person.

“When you look at fifty-four pills for every resident, it is clearly a lot of narcotics being dispensed,” said Outer Banks hospitalist Dr. Christine Petzing, who has led efforts here to educate providers about prescribing practices as well as alternative pain management options.

Petzing and other officials believe the DEA numbers may have captured a peak period in the opioid epidemic, and she added: “I do believe there has been improvement in prescribing practices and quantities [since 2012].” It was in 2012, that Petzing formed the Providers Council on Prescription Drug Abuse, an effort that led more than 60 local physicians to join and sign a pledge to be part of the solution to prescription drug abuse.

Dare County Department of Health and Human Services Communications Specialist Kelly Nettnin said that the figures from the DEA database reflected a time period when the opioid epidemic was becoming a public health issue of real concern. Since then, she noted, hospitals, doctors’ offices and medical groups have implemented regulations and “tons of interventions have occurred.”

Some other data do reflect improvement in the amount of potentially dangerous painkillers being prescribed locally. According to the North Carolina Controlled Substance Reporting System (CSRS) that tracked the period from January 2014 to June 2018 on a monthly basis, the percentage of Dare County residents with an opioid prescription peaked in January 2015 at about 6.3%. By July 2018, that percentage shrunk to just under 5.5%.

Not surprisingly then, the CSRS data show the number of opioid pills dispensed per resident also declining in Dare County from about 5.5 per person per month in early 2015 to about 4.4 pills per person per month in July 2018.

While those numbers show a clear downward trend in the use of opioids in Dare County, there are some cautionary notes as well. In both categories — the percentage of residents with an opioid prescription and the number of pills dispensed person — Dare county’s numbers were higher than the overall North Carolina state average.

And while the CSRA and DEA data may be based on different methodologies, when you do the math, even the low water mark of 4.4 pills per person in July 2018 extrapolates out to 52.8 pills a year — a number virtually equal to the 54 pills per year per resident cited in the DEA report.

“It’s hard to compare statistics like this when we don’t know how they did the math,” noted Nettnin when discussing those two sets of numbers.

For her part, Petzing noted that Dare County’s Saving Lives Task Force held an education campaign in March of this year that covered other ways to manage pain such as massage or acupuncture. But she noted that these alternatives are unfortunately somewhat pricey and not always covered by health insurance. “They will cover prescriptions,” Petzing said, “but only so many complementary treatments.”

And despite what she characterized as a decrease in oral pain medication prescriptions, Petzing did acknowledge another problem locally — the continuing increase in the use of heroine.

“Sadly, what we are seeing is a lot of use there,” she said. “Three years ago, we would have attributed it to becoming addicted to oral medication, but we don’t know if that now necessarily holds true.”

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  • The Captain

    Okay, it’s time for both Manufacturer and Pharmacy controls and reviews. Apparent Legitimate Prescriptions may be fraud or abuse for several reasons.

    Sunday, Jul 28 @ 8:10 am
  • Cathy Shope

    Aren’t there only 2 pain mgmt doctors in Dare County??

    Monday, Jul 29 @ 12:09 am
  • Mark A Williamson

    People do this to themselves. How is this anybody’s fault except the individual? Where is personal responsibility? Why is it someone else’s fault?

    Monday, Jul 29 @ 2:26 pm
  • Right Hook

    Comparing Dare w/ Currituck and Tyrell counties: they do not have the surgeons that Dare has – especially orthopedic surgeons. Due to our demographics of elderly, Dare has a much higher number of joint replacements which typically are followed w/ pain medications. I personally have had 5 orthopedic surgeries in the past 6 yrs., each followed w/ pain meds w/ no problems ceasing. Part of the problem is people using these meds for pleasure beyond the need for pain. I commend the efforts to use more discretion in the prescribing of these meds but this should not prohibit their use when clearly warranted.

    Monday, Jul 29 @ 4:07 pm