Watauga County received 10 million opioid pills during 6 year period

Nora Smith, Reporter

This story is developing and will be updated.

More than 10 million opioid pills flooded Watauga County between 2006 and 2012, according to Drug Enforcement Administration data obtained by the Washington Post.

The Post’s analysis estimated that an average of 31.5 pills per person entered Watauga County each year. This estimate is based on a measurement of the population that includes children. 

In 2010, Watauga County’s population was 51,079 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The total number of pills distributed over the six year period was 10,799,273.

Boone Drug and Health Care at Deerfield and Boone Drug at New Market were the No. 1 and No. 3 distributors in Watauga County, distributing 3,203,600 pills and 1,283,500 pills, respectively. Walgreens on Blowing Rock Road was the No. 2 regional distributor at just over 2 million pills. McKesson Corp. and Walgreens were the top two distributors nationwide.

Jackie Park
Two locations of Boone Drug were top distributors of opioids in Watauga County between 2006 and 2012.

Surrounding counties saw even higher rates of pills per capita. 

  • Avery County: 57.5 pills per person
  • Caldwell County: 62.3 pills per person
  • Wilkes County: 55.5 pills per person
  • Ashe County: 42.9 pills per person

Boone Drug has not returned The Appalachian’s request for comment. 

Although Purdue Pharma has largely served as the head of the opioid epidemic in media coverage, data indicates that most of the drugs distributed in the U.S. were manufactured by generic labels. Actavis Pharma was the No. 1 manufacturer of pills entering Watauga County with over 5 million pills. Purdue Pharma clocked in at No. 4 for the region at just over 300,000 pills.

Like other states in the Appalachian region, North Carolina has been a hotbed for opioid distribution. Over 2.5 billion pills were supplied to the state from 2006-2012, and Omnicare Pharmacy of Hickory received the highest number of pills statewide with more than 9 million. The most severely affected counties include Columbus County (113.5 pills per person), Surry County (80.6 pills per person) and Cherokee County (76.6 pills per person). 

Drug overdoses in North Carolina steadily increased from a rate of 13.8 in 100,000 in 2013 to a rate of 24.1 in 100,000 in 2017, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State 2018 rates are not yet available, although national rates fell in 2018 for the first time in decades, the Post reported.

During the six year period, Walgreens distributed 13 billion oxycodone or hydrocodone pills, or 16.5% of the market. AmerisourceBergen, the distributor for Boone Drug, contributed to 11.7% of the market, or 9 billion pills.

Neither Walgreens nor AmerisourceBergen have returned The Appalachian’s request for comment. 

Data From Around the State 

More than 144 million pills were distributed to Wake County, where most of App State’s class of 2023 is from, according to data from App State’s Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning office. Each year, an average of 24 pills per person were supplied to the area.

For Mecklenburg, the second highest county for class of 2023 students, more than 137 million pills were distributed.  

Finally, for Guilford, the third highest county for class of 2023 students, more than 112 million pills, or 33 pills per person per year, were distributed.  

The top manufacturer of pills in North Carolina during those six years was SpecGx LLC, who manufactured over 1.2 billion pills, nearly half of all pills distributed. The top distributor was Cardinal Health, which distributed over 540 million pills during that period. 

The data for this story was made public as the result of a lawsuit against the DEA by The Washington Post and HD Media, which owns the Charleston Gazette-Mail and the Herald Dispatch in West Virginia. The federal judge overseeing the case has not yet decided if data from 2013 and 2014 should be publicly released.

Moss Brennan contributed to this report.