Researchers from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health determined Florida’s 2010 “pill mill” regulations and increased law enforcement efforts saved more than 1,000 lives over a three-year span.
A reported 12,642 people died from prescription drug overdoses — 11,753 from opioid pain relievers — in Florida from 2003 to 2009, an increase of 61 percent annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Florida opioid epidemic was widely attributed to a rampant increase in the number of pain clinics in the state during the early 2000s. In 2010, 98 of the 100 highest oxycodone-prescribing physicians in the U.S. operated out of Florida pain clinics, also referred to as pill mills, according to the CDC.
The state legislature responded by forcing pain clinics to register with the Florida government and to begin participating in the state’s new prescription drug monitoring program in January 2010. Meanwhile, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and Florida law enforcement began targeting clinics suspected of breaking the law in an operation called Operation Pill Nation.
The result was a decline in deaths from drug overdoses and opioid overdoses to 2,116 and 1,892, respectively, in 2012, according to the CDC.
After comparing the data with drug trends in North Carolina, a state which didn’t pass any related laws during the time frame, the researchers concluded “Florida’s actions were associated with an estimated 1,029 lives saved” during the study’s 34-month time frame.
Opioid painkillers boomed in popularity amongst both prescribing physicians and drug addicts in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Health facilities called pain clinics began opening across the country, but many were simply fronts for illegal prescribing practices, according to the DEA.
A total of 1,501 different pain clinics opened in Florida during a seven-year span.
The largest concentrations of pain clinics that opened from 2003 to 2009 in Florida were in:
In 2010, the DEA and Florida law enforcement began Operation Pill Nation, an effort comprising 500 law enforcement officers from multiple agencies in a coordinated effort to take down illegal drug prescribers. After the DEA’s Operation Pill Nation, Florida was home to just 13 of the top 100 oxycodone purchasing physicians, according to the DEA.
The researchers at Johns Hopkins analyzed and compared trends from the Florida Department of Health and the North Carolina State Center for Health Statistics for 2003–12 because North Carolina didn’t enact any related legislation during the time frame.
During the period studied, there were 11,721 deaths in Florida from opioid overdose and 3,787 deaths in North Carolina. The researchers discovered an increase in opioid deaths in North Carolina, but a reduction of deaths in Florida after the government took action. They concluded the government efforts prevented Florida from continuing the same upward trend that North Carolina had experienced.
The researchers then analyzed deaths from heroin overdose. People addicted to opioids often switch to heroin when prescription opioids like hydrocodone and methadone are no longer available. Surprisingly, the researchers found Florida’s heroin death rate was lower than anticipated when compared to North Carolina.
The heroin correlation likely needs additional study, though. The Johns Hopkins study ended in 2012, and from 2013 to 2014 deaths from heroin overdose increased from 199 to a state record 477, according to the Washington Post.
Still, the Florida government’s effort saved more than 1,000 lives and put an end to an industry that supported the addiction of thousands of people.