Overdose deaths have doubled in a decade

Overdose deaths have doubled in a decade
© Getty Images

The number of Americans dying from drug overdoses jumped by more than 200 percent in the last 16 years, a spike that crosses economic, geographic and racial lines.

More than 52,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s 211 percent higher than the 16,849 people who died of overdoses in 1999 and double the 25,785 who died that way in 2003.

Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of injury-related death in the United States, the CDC said.

ADVERTISEMENT

The report comes as President Trump is expected to declare the epidemic of abuse of pain-killing opioids in particular a public health emergency, a step short of a national emergency sought by advocates that would free up rules and funding. 

A rapid increase in the number of prescription drugs including opioids provided to patients has led to more use of illicit drugs like heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamines. 

“We’re seeing a huge spike in the availability and a reduction in cost of heroin and fentanyl. With addictive substances, if you increase availability and reduce cost, more people use them. It’s kind of a law of nature,” Tom Frieden, who directed the CDC during the Obama administration, told The Hill in July.

CDC researchers said opioid use, which has skyrocketed since the turn of the century, is to blame for much of the increase. Opioid prescription rates have leveled off since 2012 as state and federal regulators crack down on so-called pill mills that overprescribe the drugs, a strategy that may help slow the overdose epidemic.

Overdose deaths have spiked particularly in nonmetropolitan, rural parts of the country, where the number of deaths has jumped 325 percent over the last 16 years. 

Overdose death rates among Native Americans and native Alaskans in nonmetropolitan areas are up more than 500 percent. Among whites, death rates have risen by 224 percent in metropolitan areas and by 343 percent in nonmetro areas. Similar increases occurred among Hispanics. 

Death rates among black Americans have more than doubled, though they have risen at a lower rate than among other races. 

“Reducing the number of persons initially exposed to prescription opioids might reduce the illicit use of opioids, the subsequent risk of addiction, and the use of illicit drugs,” CDC researchers said.

The study found the number of Americans who report having used illicit drugs in the past month has risen sharply over the last decade. Drug use has increased by almost 22 percent in large metropolitan areas, by 16 percent in smaller metros and by 13 percent in rural areas. 

Drug use has actually declined among younger Americans, those between the ages of 12 and 17. But drug use has risen more precipitously among those over the age of 26, and especially among those over the age of 35. 

Public health experts say a decade-long trend of more opioid prescriptions, and the consequent increase in illicit drug use, will take just as long to reverse.

“It took a generation to get in this bad shape, and it’s not going to be quick for it to get turned around,” Frieden said. “Turning off the tap of excess opiates from prescriptions and from the drug cartels are both going to be important, and providing services to those who are addicted and can survive is important too.”