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March 22, 2019

Fentanyl deaths doubled—then doubled again, and again. See the chart.

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    Overdose deaths related to fentanyl have doubled every year since 2013, with the most significant rises coming among blacks, according to a CDC report released Thursday.

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    For the report, researchers gathered data from death records produced by coroners and medical examiners nationwide. They found that the rate of fentanyl overdose deaths in 2013 began to rise "at an exponential rate," according to Merianne Rose Spencer, a statistician at CDC and one of the report's authors.

    The data show fentanyl-related overdose deaths between 2013 and 2016 rose by an average 113% each year. Overall, more than 36,000 people died of fentanyl-related overdose deaths between 2011 and 2016, with 18,335 of those deaths occurring in 2016 alone.

    The rise in deaths was especially stark among blacks, who saw fentanyl-related overdose deaths increase by roughly 21 times between 2013 and 2016. Latinos also saw a significant increase in fentanyl overdose deaths, increasing by almost 15 times between 2013 and 2016. By comparison, whites saw fentanyl-related overdose deaths increase by about eight times between 2013 and 2016.

    Among different age groups, adults 25-34 saw the most significant increase of fentanyl-related overdose deaths, rising by roughly 14 times between 2013 and 2016. The highest rates of fentanyl-related overdose deaths occurred in New England, followed by states in the Mid-Atlantic and Upper Midwest areas of the United States.

    Why deaths have increased so much

    Experts say the rise in fentanyl-related overdose deaths is being fueled by increases in trafficking and fentanyl use, NPR's "Shots" reports. Fentanyl is easier to produce and is more potent than heroin, and according to Paul Knierim, deputy chief of operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration's Office of Global Enforcement, fentanyl is highly profitable. Knierim said a single kilogram of fentanyl purchased in China for $3,000 to $5,000 "can generate upwards of $1.5 million in revenue on the illicit market with the potential of being lethal for 500,000 people."

    Since fentanyl is more potent than heroin, it is more likely to cause an overdose, and the high associated with fentanyl fades quickly, which means users of the drug inject more frequently. That increases their risk of overdose, the Washington Post reports.

    The report found that fentanyl-related overdose deaths appeared to have peaked in November 2017 at an estimated 72,287 deaths. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), said, "It is a very significant story that for the first time in eight years we're not seeing an increase in overdose deaths. We feel like it's still unacceptably high, but we're cautiously optimistic that we've finally turned the corner after eight years" (Bebinger, "Shots," NPR, 3/21; Healy, Los Angeles Times, 3/20; Achenbach, Washington Post, 3/21).

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