In 2016, Eric Eyre at the Charleston Gazette-Mail revealed the breathtaking size and scope of the painkiller industry that was ravaging parts of West Virginia.
780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills over six years. 433 pain pills for every person in the state. 1,728 overdose deaths. In West Virginia alone.
Eyre had been denied access to the data, which drug companies argued was “proprietary,” until a county circuit court judge unsealed documents that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had sent to the state’s attorney general.
The coverage eventually led to a slate of million-dollar settlements, clinic closures and changes to state law — and earned Eyre a Pulitzer.
At The Washington Post, Jeff Leen and the data team saw the scope and impact of Eyre’s reporting and wondered what it would take to obtain painkiller data for the entire United States. A massive data trove called Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System — or ARCOS — contained information about the manufacturing and distribution of painkillers across the entire country, but the pharmaceutical industry had no plans to open it up for journalists to navigate.
When 2,000 communities across the U.S. sued dozens of big drug companies over the destruction that painkillers were causing, a federal judge ordered the ARCOS data turned over to the plaintiffs for examination, but sealed the data away from the public and the media as part of a protective order.
That’s when the Post and HD Media, the owner of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, jumped in. They appealed the decision. A group of appellate judges ruled that the protective order on ARCOS data should be amended. In effect, they released the ARCOS data from 2006 to 2012.
And in July, the Washington Post’s data team published a database of millions of painkiller transactions — available for the public, researchers, academics and other news organizations to use.
“We feel like this is one of the most important stories of our time — how the drug companies saturated our country with these pills, which companies and which parts of the country (they) went to,” said Leen, the Post’s investigations editor. “All of that combined allows for us to believe that this is a story of extraordinary public impact,” and why the Post decided to make the information public.
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In the past, The Washington Post has published databases for anyone, even competitors, to access. Its databases of police shootings, called “Fatal Force,” have been made public every year since 2015.
But this one was different. Leen said the painkillers database was “orders of magnitude bigger” than anything they’ve published before. It’s full of information about the size and scope of the painkiller epidemic in nearly every community in the United States.
As of Friday, Leen said 94 local outlets have written their own stories using information from the databases. Eleven national news organizations have done the same. Overall, the data has been downloaded almost 40,000 times.
“It’s been stunning,” Leen said. “We’ve been really, I’d say, humbled to watch what has happened with the data.”
The database shows that more than 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pills were distributed across the country between 2006 and 2012. Nearly 100,000 Americans died from overdosing on painkillers during that time.
“The Opioid Files” lays this all out in an easily navigable format that allows users to explore the distribution of painkillers on a county-by-county basis — and plainly see the impact that the drugs have had on their communities.
“Here’s how it hit the streets: CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid; your drugstores,” Leen said. “Once you see the scale of this story, it’s stunning. It’s stunning that so many giant companies distributed so many opioids to so many people in America.
“The concern had always been that it was external, coming in from outside the United States. … it seems impossible for people to believe that our own companies are distributing drugs to our own people through a process that’s being abused.”
The Post plans to continue mining the database for revelations about the painkiller crisis. There’s still a lot to come out, Leen said, and the investigative team will continue to report it. But he also hopes that other news organizations will join them, because “there’s more than we can handle on our own.”
“In my mind, it’s the biggest story of our time,” Leen said. “As much as it’s written about, it’s still not written about.”