Drug overdose deaths hit record high in 2017. See the rise, charted.

More than 72,200 U.S. residents died from drug-related overdoses last year, representing a nearly 10% increase in drug overdose deaths over the previous 12-month period, according to preliminary data from CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) published Wednesday. 

The provisional drug overdose death counts are based on monthly death records processed by CDC's National Vital Statistics System for deaths occurring within the District of Columbia and the 50 states. NCHS adjusted the drug overdose death counts to account for underreporting and recorded deaths under investigation. According to "Wonkblog," NCHS is expected to release final drug overdose death counts at the end of the year. 

Overdose rates reach record high

NCHS estimated that a record-high of 72,287 U.S. residents died from drug-related overdoses from December 2016 to December 2017, representing a 9.5% increase in drug overdose deaths over the previous 12-month period. According to "Wonkblog," that translates to about 200 drug-related overdose deaths per day, or one per every eight minutes.

Analysts said the increase in drug overdose deaths likely stemmed from the growing number of U.S. residents using opioids and the increasing deadliness of drugs, the New York Times' "The Upshot" reports.

In particular, NCHS found drug overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids increased sharply in 2017, but overdose deaths from heroin, prescription opioids, and methadone declined.

NCHS found that the number of drug overdose deaths varied significantly by state, but appear to be distributed across the United States similarly to how they have been in previous years. For example, parts of Appalachia and New England continue to show comparatively high rates of drug overdoses. The highest numbers of drug overdose deaths were reported in:

  • West Virginia, with 58.7 overdose deaths for every 100,000 residents in 2017;
  • The District of Columbia, with 50.4 deaths for every 100,000 residents in 2017;
  • Pennsylvania, with 44.1 deaths for every 100,000 residents in 2017;
  • Ohio, with 44 deaths for every 100,000 residents in 2017; and
  • Maryland, with 37.9 deaths for every 100,000 residents in 2017.

Nebraska reported the fewest number of drug overdose deaths, at 8.2 deaths per 100,000 in 2017.

Early data suggest state prevention efforts might be working

Some states—such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont—saw the number of drug-related overdose deaths decline after launching public health campaigns intended to curb such deaths and bolstering residents' access to substance use disorder treatments, "The Upshot" reports. In other states—such as Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, and West Virginia—the number of drug overdose deaths increased by more than 17%, with New Jersey experiencing a 27% increase.

However, NCHS said monthly data suggest drug-related overdose death counts might have started to level off toward the end of 2017, "The Upshot" reports.

Comments

Brandon Marshall, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health, said opioid use is increasing in the United States "in most places, but not at this exponential rate," which suggests the "dominant factor" driving the increase in overdose deaths "is the changing drug supply."

Mark Levine, a physician and Vermont's health commissioner, said, "Even when you think you're doing better, all it takes is one bad batch of fentanyl in any state and you're going to have deaths."

Dan Ciccarone, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, said the United States is not responding rapidly to the U.S. opioid epidemic. "Because of the forces of stigma, the population is reluctant to seek care. I wouldn't expect a rapid downturn; I would expect a slow, smooth downturn," Ciccarone said.

But Chris Jones, director of the national mental health and substance use policy laboratory at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, said, "There's a lot of money going into the system, and it takes some time for this to translate into new infrastructure" to address substance misuse. He said, "That's particularly true for places where [the infrastructure] wasn't already there" (Sanger-Katz, "The Upshot", New York Times, 8/15; Ingraham, "Wonkblog," Washington Post, 8/15; Weixel, The Hill, 8/15; Baker, "Vitals," Axios, 8/16).

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