Las Vegas Sun

July 26, 2014

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How we did it:

Tracking Nevadans’ Appetite for Painkillers

The Sun discovered the startling increase in the number of narcotic painkillers consumed in Nevada after analyzing several thousand pages of Drug Enforcement Administration reports on the production and distribution of controlled substances to pharmacies and health care practitioners in the United States.

One of the key differences between the Sun analysis and the reports published by the DEA were the population estimates. The DEA uses U.S. Census numbers from 2000, but because Nevada is a rapidly growing state, the Sun factored in annual census population estimates to account for population increase and to estimate per person drug use. This revealed how consumption has changed over time and allowed comparison between Nevada and other states.

The strength of the DEA data lies in its hard numbers. Prescription narcotics are commercially manufactured, closely monitored and tracked, allowing their use in Nevada to be explored.

But the information is also limited. It shows the state where a substance was distributed, but that does not mean the drugs were consumed within its borders. Experts said tourists coming to Las Vegas, or residents in bordering states, could add a small amount to the state’s total allocation of prescription narcotics.

Mail-order pharmacies based in Nevada might raise Nevada’s figures even though those drugs might be shipped elsewhere.

The only such mail-order house some experts said could be a factor is Medco, which operates nine pharmacies nationwide, including a large automated distribution center in Las Vegas.

A Medco spokeswoman said the Las Vegas site primarily distributes asthma, cholesterol and diabetes medications and few, if any, narcotics.

The Sun obtained a copy of the Nevada Pharmacy Board’s database that details all of the prescriptions for controlled substances written in the state in 2007, although information that would have identified the providers was removed.

The Sun also analyzed detailed information on fatal drug overdoses from the Clark County coroner — records of more than 3,200 deaths in Southern Nevada from 1991 to 2007. By examining the causes behind each one, the Sun determined which substances were involved in an overdose and how frequently those overdoses occurred.

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