Drug Overdose Death Estimates Released For 2016 – At Least 64,000 – A 21% Increase From 2015
According to preliminary data recently released by the National Center for Health Statistics, they were an estimated 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016. If these figures are correct, they reflect a 22% increase from 2015 (52,400) as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This new data also confirms what many have suspected – overdose deaths related to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids surpassed those of both prescription painkillers and heroin.
The Breakdown – Overdoses Led By Fentanyl
According to the NCHS, prescription opioids such as OxyContin and Percocet were linked to about 14,400 overdose fatalities in 2016. Another 15,400 were related to heroin.
Synthetic opioids (other than methadone) such as fentanyl were related to over 20,100 fatalities. The remaining causes of death were related to other substances, such as cocaine.
In fact, deaths involving fentanyl more than doubled between 2015-2016, accompanied by an increase in fatalities related to cocaine and methamphetamine. The number of people who suffered a drug overdose death related to prescription opioids continued to climb, but many of those deaths also involved fentanyl or heroin (overall, deaths from prescription painkillers are decreasing.)
In July, the Drug Enforcement Agency referred to fentanyl as a “global threat.”
“The United States is in the midst of a fentanyl crisis, with law enforcement reporting and public health data indicating higher availability of fentanyls, increased seizures of fentanyls, and more known overdose deaths from fentanyls than at any other time since the drugs were first created in 1959.”
But what many don’t realize is this – there has also been a resurgence in methamphetamine and cocaine-related fatalities, and while many of these do involve opioids, many (about one-third in 2015) do not.
Several states experienced overdose death increases in the double digits, including Virginia (38%), Florida (55%), Maryland (67%) and Delaware (71%). New York City alone saw an increase of 50%. Florida had the most overdose deaths in 2016 overall – 5,167.
If the final figures released later this year align with these estimates, it will confirm that the opioid crisis is the deadliest overdose epidemic ever.
To put that into perspective, consider that 55,000 Americans died in car accidents in 1972 at the height of such fatalities, and 43,000 died in 1995 from AIDS at the epidemic’s peak.
And because of delays in reports drug fatalities, the data is not yet complete – the final figures are expected to be released in December. In fact, judging by the list of reporting jurisdictions, it appears as if more than half of all U.S. states remain unaccounted for.
One caveat, however – coroners and medical examiners are more often testing for opioids due to a greater awareness of the epidemic, so some of the increase may be related to this fact.
From Prescription Drugs To Heroin
The figures reveal how the opioid epidemic has evolved – it began as a result of the over-prescribing of opioids, but as physicians starting to feel the heat, they reduced prescriptions. Consequently, users switched to other drugs, such as heroin.
According to the CDC, as many as 75% of new heroin users report initiating their habit after becoming addicted to painkillers. And fentanyl, which is 100 times more powerful than morphine, has been increasingly found in the United States. It’s often laced with heroin or pressed into a pill disguised as another drug – and the user entirely unaware of its presence.
After years of increases, prescription drug overdoses are more or less stable, with the greatest rises among illicit opioids. This is due to crackdowns on physicians and pharmacies, who are more likely to be held accountable that they were in the past.
In a perfect world, patients who truly need and do not misuse them should be able to obtain, but that’s not always the case. For some, medication became unavailable or too expensive – and so, they looked for another way to feed their habit.
The Problem Inherent In The System
But reducing the number of prescription painkillers that are available for misuse (and may be subject to drug diversion) wasn’t necessarily a mistake. It’s helping to prevent new users from becoming addicted.
The real problem was (and is) a chronically deficient addiction treatment and health care system that wasn’t able to pick up the pieces.
According to tot he surgeon general, only 1 in 10 Americans with a substance use disorder obtain specialized treatment. This troubling fact is largest due to a shortage of options, and disparities in what services are covered by insurance – for example, many treatment centers who accept Medicare have limited slots for patients – it just doesn’t pay.
According to the CDC, between 1999-2015, opioid drug overdose death estimates fell around 300,000.
Still, state and federal officials and politicians have recently been calling for more treatment funding, especially for medication-assisted treatment (ie. buprenorphine and naltrexone) which has been proven effective at reducing cravings and withdrawals and easing the transition to sobriety.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology
Provisional Counts on Drug Overdose Deaths 2016Drug Overdose Death