Study: Opioid abuse down slightly in 2017, still at high levels

Study: Opioid abuse down slightly in 2017, still at high levels
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The number of people abusing opioids in the U.S. dropped slightly in 2017 compared to the previous year, though remains at high levels, according to a new survey.
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said in data released Friday that 11.4 million people abused opioids in 2017, compared to 11.8 million in 2016 and 12.7 million in 2015.
Of the people who abused opioids last year, the vast majority – 11.1 million, or 97 percent – used prescription pain killers, with Hydrocodone and Oxycodone being the most commonly abused, according to HHS' National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Nearly 1 million people used heroin, while half a million used both prescription opioids and heroin.
The survey found that most people who abused prescription opioids got them from friends or relatives for free. Another 34.6 percent got them from a doctor, signaling that the overprescribing of opioids is still an issue, according to the survey.
"This is important, because it tells us we still have a major problem in this country with prescribers overprescribing pain medications to the point where people have enough of these drugs to share them or to sell them to others," said Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, assistant secretary for mental health and substance abuse. 
There was a small decrease in the number of people who used heroin in 2017, but more people are dying from it, the survey found. 
In 2017, 15,594 people died from heroin overdoses, a marked increase from the 13,219 deaths in 2016, 13,101 deaths in 2015 and 2,013 deaths in 2002.
"What this tells us is that we have a heroin on the street that is far more toxic and dangerous that it was in 2002," McCance-Katz said. 
The increase in deaths could be attributed to the surge in heroin being laced with fentanyl, a powerful opioid that is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. 
However, the survey released Friday found that number of new heroin users decreased from 170,000 in 2016 to 81,000 last year.
The new data comes as the Senate prepares to vote on a package of bills aimed at curbing the nation's opioid epidemic.
The House passed its version earlier this summer and the Senate plans to vote on its package next week. 
The survey released Friday mainly examined the impact of prescription opioid abuse and not synthetic opioids, which have become the primary driver of opioid deaths in the U.S.
Of the 72,000 Americans who died from drug overdoses in 2017, 30,000 overdosed on synthetic opioids, which includes fentanyl, while the overdose rates for heroin and other opioids dropped or remained flat, according to estimates released earlier this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).