Opioid Prescriptions Are Declining, but Some Tennessee Counties Are Getting Worse: See the Interacti
Pharmacies in tiny Hamblen County northeast of Knoxville, Tenn. dispensed nearly three opioid prescriptions for every resident there, on average, in 2008 — the highest rate in the state. Less than 10 years later, the rate was almost cut in half.
Hamlen County shows how the state has curtailed much of the flow of legal drugs that often fuel addiction. While still among the highest three states in the country, Tennessee decreased its opioid prescription rate by nearly 20 percent from 2008 to 2016, the most recent year for which federal data is available.
“We are still too high on the amount of opioids that we are prescribing out there,” said Tommy Farmer, a special agent at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations, and the director of the state Dangerous Drugs Task Force. “But we have to be careful not to go too fast, because it pushes them to the street.”
State officials shut down so-called “pill mills” and other prescription hotbeds in Appalachia, driving some of the narcotics traffic underground. Their attention has now shifted to the rest of the state, where prescription rates in some counties are still climbing.
Out of the state’s 95 counties, 12 saw an increase in their per-capita prescribing from 2015 to 2016, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nine of those were in the west or middle of the state.
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Farmer credits state initiatives for the overall progress. Tennessee launched a database to monitor controlled substance prescriptions in December 2006, for instance, allowing officials to identify prescription hotbeds and launch investigations.
But overdose deaths continue to rise. The number of Tennesseans who died from drug overdoses jumped 12 percent from 2015 to 2016, largely due to growing use of synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Many recent overdose victims didn’t have prescriptions, Farmer said.
“We’re seeing an increase in illicit drug use,” he said. “That means they’re having more difficulty getting pharmaceuticals from a doctor or a nurse.”