Opioid epidemic, a reporter in Appalachia, a story, a Pulitzer Prize
Kermit, a small town in West Virginia, used to be a booming coal town. Named after Kermit Roosevelt, son of President Theodore Roosevelt, this town has been called the “ground zero” for the opioid epidemic.
In 2017, the Mayor of Kermit filed a lawsuit on behalf of the town of Kermit. The suit names four pharmaceutical companies, the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy, and the former owner of Justice Medical Clinic, according to a 2018 article at www.wvpublic.org.
Death in Mud Lick: A Coal Country Fight against the Drug Companies That Delivered the Opioid Epidemic (2020),by journalist Eric Eyre, is the story of a pharmacy in Kermit, West Virginia, (Mingo County) that distributed 12 million opioid pain pills in three years to a town with a population of 382 people.From doctors to pharmacists to drug distributors—greed ran rampant. And so did addiction.
Eyre follows the opioid shipments into individual counties, pharmacies, and homes in West Virginia and explains how thousands of Appalachians got hooked on prescription drugs—resulting in the highest overdose rates in the country. He details the clandestine meetings with whistleblowers; a court fight to unseal filings that the drug distributors tried to keep hidden, a push to secure the DEA pill-shipment data, and the fallout after Eyre’s local paper, the Gazette-Mail,the smallest newspaper ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, broke the story.
“With his new book, he took the death of a coal miner, William (Bull) Preece, found dead in a trailer in Mud Lick amid a residue of crushed pills, and told the how and the why. His reporting led to restrictions on prescriptions, greater tracking, more transparency. He shamed an industry and saved lives. Working at a small newspaper, Eyre made a big difference,” surmised Ken Armstrong, journalist for The New Yorker,in a 2020 article.
Eyre’s book reminds me of Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America (2018) by Beth Macy, a former newspaper reporter for The Roanoke Times. “Appalachia was among the first places where the malaise of opioid pills hit the nation in the mid–1990’s, ensnaring coal miners, loggers, furniture makers, and their kids.” Macy’s book told about the origins of Purdue Pharma and how they hired 5000 doctors, nurses, and pharmacists to go to seminars and to become paid speakers for OxyContin.
Similarly, the book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (2015) by Sam Quinones, documented the heroin and opiate epidemic in the United States. Portsmouth, Ohio (Scioto County) was the pill mill capital of America and they had more pill mills per capita in that town than anywhere else in the country, reported Quinones.
Congratulations to Eric Eyre for his 2017 Pulitzer Prize. “For courageous reporting, performed in the face of powerful opposition, to expose the flood of opioids flowing into depressed West Virginia counties with the highest overdose death rates in the country.” Visit www.pulitzer.org.
This column is a salute to Eric Eyre, former journalist and investigative reporter for the Gazette-Mailin Charleston, West Virginia. Eyre retired this year due to Parkinson’s disease.
Melissa Martin, Ph.D. is an author, columnist, educator, and therapist. She lives in Southern Ohio. Contact her at email@example.com.