Heroin and Fentanyl, Overdose Deaths Drive Down American Life Expectancy Two Years In A Row
A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that drug overdose deaths in the United States increased by 21% from 2015 to 2016, a total that reflects an estimated 63,600 fatalities. Most of these deaths are related to opioid use, with heroin and fentanyl playing increasingly large roles.
This skyrocketing overdose rate has contributed to a lower life expectancy for Americans for the second year in a row. Moreover, a baby born in 2016 is expected to live 78 years and seven months – two months less than a child who was born in 2014.
Two months may not seem like much, but this is a very startling revelation considering the U.S. is among the wealthiest and most technologically advanced countries in the world. Drug overdose deaths were ranked as the #8 top cause of death among Americans.
Approximately two-thirds of overdose deaths in 2016 were linked to opiates and opioids, which include both synthetic forms such as fentanyl and prescription painkillers such as OxyContin.
In the last few years, fentanyl, a drug similar to heroin but up to 50 times more powerful, has increasingly been found in the illicit drug supply – most often unbeknownst to the user.
Fentanyl and its derivatives were involved in more than 19,000 overdose deaths in 2016, following by heroin with 15,500 deaths, and prescription opioids with 14,500 deaths.
Perhaps the most famous fentanyl-related death was the artist Prince, who died at his estate in April from a self-administered, presumably accidental overdose.
Estimates Likely Lower Than Reality
It is likely that these numbers are still underestimated. Researchers from the CDC relied on data from death certificates, which list the drugs present in the deceased, but not the actual cause of death. Toxicology blood tests are more reliable, however, and several states including Florida and Pennsylvania conduct their own toxicology tests.
Often these reports find that heroin, fentanyl, and anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax are associated with far more overdose deaths than prescription painkillers. A recent study revealed that illicit fentanyl and its derivatives were related to more than half (56%) of the drug overdoses in 10 states, many in the east, such as Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire.
Moreover, of the 5,152 opioid overdoses in the last half of 2016, more than 2,900 involved fentanyl. This report was the first to examine toxicology and death scene evidence to analyze the nature of opioid overdoses.
Another study found that emergency department admissions for overdoses involving heroin and fentanyl were nearly double of those related to opioid painkillers.
Indeed, the CDC has received some criticism over this fact. While they and many others are focusing on painkillers as the foundation for the opioid epidemic, the shift in death patterns (a trend which is acknowledged by the report) from prescription to illicit opioids has been largely ignored.
For example, the CDC recently launched a public awareness campaign targeting the risks of prescription painkillers while omitting the hazards of using heroin and fentanyl. And unfortunately, there is scant evidence that these awareness campaigns are reducing addiction or overdoses.
Michael Barnett, MD, as published in The New England Journal of Medicine:
“Although the volume of opioid prescriptions has fallen by 12% since its peak in 2012, the rate of overdose deaths continues to increase faster than ever, driven by an influx of potent synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. How and when decreased prescribing will translate into fewer deaths is unclear.”
“In the meantime, there is a real danger that aggressive opioid-prescribing policies could drive more people to use more dangerous injection opioids or force patients to live with inadequately treated pain.”
The report did reveal 2016 statistics suggest that overdose deaths involving prescription painkillers such as oxycodone are leveling off. From 1999-2009, they rose at an average rate of 13% every year, and last year, they increased by only 3%.
Whether or not this will change the CDC’s approach to the opioid epidemic, however, remains to be seen.
Another a very real possibility is that these numbers do not reflect the many people who, after forming a dependence on painkillers, had them pulled by their doctors due to outside pressure to reign in their opioid prescribing habits. Another great CDC statistic: 4 out of 5 new heroin users say that they began their habit after first becoming addicted to prescription opioids.
We Are Still Not Doing Enough
The bottom line is, despite new guidelines, warnings, and awareness, we as a country are simply not doing enough to battle the crisis. The number people who died of overdoses in 2016 exceeds both the peak number of deaths from AIDS in 1996 and the peak number of deaths from car accidents in 1972.
And yes, far more people die from complications related to long-term alcoholism and tobacco smoking. What’s not happening as much, however, is people abruptly losing their lives as a result of use. Of the tens of thousands of overdoses each year, only about 2000 are caused by alcohol poisoning.
And as for the long-term health effects of sustained drug use, outside of scientific research, almost no one is talking about those.
Just recently, Yu Haibin, a senior official with China’s Narcotics Control Bureau of the Ministry of Public Security had this to say, per CNN:
“The biggest challenge China faces in cracking down on the smuggling of opioids is the huge demand from the US.”
“The United States should strengthen its educational and publicity campaigns to reduce domestic demand, intensify its crackdown on Internet-based drug crimes, and share more lab data with China to improve our detection and verification capabilities.”
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology
References For Heroin And Fentanyl