According to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were more than 70,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017.
New federal data shows the serious impact of the drug epidemic. Overdoses for 2017 were at an all-time high, and so widespread that they actually contributed to a decrease in overall life expectancy for Americans. Vox reports the leading cause of overdose deaths as non-methadone synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl. These substances, which are hundreds of times more potent than non-synthetic opioids, have increasingly supplanted heroin in the illicit market.
According to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were more than 70,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017. This is the highest number of drug overdose deaths in US history. The age-adjusted overdose death rate, of 21.7 per 100,000 people, was nearly 10 percent higher than it was in 2016, the CDC found.
Overdoses, combined with rising suicide rates, combined to make 2017 a lethal year for Americans. The increase in overdoses and suicides caused for a drop in life expectancy in 2017. This is the third year in a row in which life expectancy fell or remained flat. Both causes, which are tied to mental health, point to deep-seated problems in the way the United States provides resources to people at risk for self-harm and substance use disorder.
The three states hit hardest by drug overdose deaths in 2017 are West Virginia (57.8 per 100,000 people), Ohio (46.3), and Pennsylvania (44.3).
Preliminary data for 2018 indicate that the overdose death rate may have leveled off earlier in the year. However, this is not necessarily an improvement: the annual rate of drug overdose deaths remains at record or near-record rates.
Historically, there have been two major waves of opioid deaths the drug epidemic, beginning two decades ago. According to Vox, “The opioid epidemic began in the 1990s, when pharmaceutical marketing and lobbying led doctors to prescribe far more opioid painkillers—leading to a first wave of overdose deaths as more people, including both patients and people who stole or bought painkillers from patients, misused the drugs and got addicted.” Other substances, such as cocaine and crack, severely impacted urban African-American communities; they were especially vulnerable to new drugs, and had the least access to resources that would support recovery.
The second wave was in the early 2000s, when heroin flooded the illicit market. The victims were a new population of people who used opioids but lost access to prescribed painkillers due to tighter regulation of prescriptions, through prescribing guidelines or databases. Vox predicts that we are now experiencing the next surge in opioid-related deaths: “the US is in the middle of a third wave, as fentanyls offer an even more potent, cheaper—and deadlier—alternative to heroin.”
Fentanyl is dangerous because of its potency and the difficulty detecting the drug, which can be mixed into cocaine, heroin, or other substances. Harm reduction advocates suggest testing substances with a test strip that can show the presence of ultra-strong opioids; using a small amount first to see how potent a substance is; using in the presence of other people instead of alone; and having multiple naloxone kits on hand, in case of an overdose.
Overdose deaths are avoidable, and could be prevented if recovery becomes a national priority. Recent dramatic changes in Dayton, Ohio show that when public policy, recovery supports, funding for recovery groups, and civic action are combined, overdose rates drop dramatically —in this case, by over 50 percent. A national effort to stop the drug epidemic would cost tens of billions of dollars, and save millions of lives. Simply expanding access to addiction treatment and medications like methadone or buprenorphine would give a suffering population a chance to get into recovery.
To address the national drug epidemic, the suggestions in the Surgeon General’s 2016 report on addiction must be implemented through public policy and public health, and receive full federal funding. Opioids are part of the picture, but other substances must be taken into consideration as well, so no American is left behind. Suicide attempts and substance use disorder are both mental health issues that respond well to treatment, compassion, and long term support. Investing in healthcare that really works is the pathway to helping people survive.