It is no secret that drug overdose deaths have increased substantially in the 21st century, but until now few have realized just how dramatic the rise in drug poisoning fatalities has been.
Using precise data obtained from its National Vital Statistics System, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released a report on overdose deaths that reveals something astounding: between 1999 and 2012, the number of Americans who succumbed to the effects of drug poisoning (commonly called overdose) rose by approximately 250 percent. In raw numbers, 41,502 overdose casualties were recorded in 2012, compared to 16,849 in 1999. Even when adjusted for age and population growth, the increase was still a robust 207 percent; 13 people per 100,000 died from excessive drug consumption in 2012, while only six per 100,000 passed away from drug overdoses in 1999.
As a deeper look at the numbers makes clear, prescription painkillers from the opioid class are the primary culprit behind the dramatic rise in drug overdose deaths. Despite attempts to clamp down on the overuse of these highly potent and highly addictive drugs, physicians in the United States still wrote out 259 million orders for opioid pain medications in 2012, which would have been enough to supply every adult American with at least one drug prescription.
In the vast majority of cases, doctors aren’t being intentionally irresponsible with these medications. Opioid medications are effective, and the number of medical patients needing relief from chronic pain is significant. But with so many of these drugs out there, control of their use and distribution is impossible, and as long as the drugs are in circulation in abundance, the risk of addiction and overdose will remain high.
The Numbers Behind the Numbers
Here are some of the more interesting revelations to emerge from the CDC’s new report on drug overdose deaths:
- The 41,502 drug poisoning fatalities recorded in 2012 included 16,007 lives lost to opioid painkiller abuse and 5,925 deaths attributable to heroin overdose. This means prescription painkilling drugs were responsible for 39 percent of the reported fatalities, and drugs from the opioid class in general (which includes heroin) were to blame for 53 percent of these premature deaths.
- In 2012, 16,007 people lost their lives to prescription painkiller misuse, which almost matches the total number who died from drug overdoses of all types in 1999 (16,849).
- The age-adjusted rates for prescription opioid poisoning deaths soared from 1.4 per 100,000 to 5.1 per 100,000, which represents an increase of approximately 360 percent.
- The number of people succumbing to opioid painkiller overdose rose by an average of 18 percent annually from 1999 to 2006 before rates stabilized. From 2011 to 2012, there was a 5 percent decline in yearly opioid painkiller poisoning deaths, marking the only time the statistics moved in this direction in the years covered by the CDC study.
- The rates of death by heroin overdose jumped from 0.7 per 100,000 in 1999 to 1.9 per 100,000 in 2012, which amounts to an increase of approximately 270 percent. These rates started to rise substantially after 2006 and increased by an astonishing 35 percent between 2011 and 2012 (from 1.4 to 1.9 per 100,000).
- S. population growth between 1999 and 2012 would account for 2,000 additional drug overdose deaths annually. When deaths attributable to population increase and opioid overdose are excluded from the equation, we are still left with an additional 7,500 drug poisoning deaths annually, which can only be traced to increased fatalities associated with other classes of drugs.
- There are 14 states where rates of overdose deaths are significantly higher than the national average. The states with the highest levels of annual drug poisoning deaths are West Virginia, Kentucky and New Mexico, with 32, 25 and 24.7 deaths per 100,000 respectively. The figures in West Virginia are as amazing as they are alarming, since 32 per 100,000 is almost 250 percent higher than the national average—which itself is 250 percent higher than the national average back in 1999.
- Only 11 states have overdose fatality rates significantly lower than the national average. Many are located in the Upper Midwest, while others are distributed across different regions of the country.
Opioid Abuse Is America’s No. 1 Drug Problem
While these shocking numbers can’t be blamed exclusively on the rise of prescription painkiller abuse, this is clearly the most important factor driving overdose deaths. And since virtually all drug treatment specialists agree that opioid medication abuse is acting as a gateway to heroin use (drugs in the opioid class are interchangeable for addicts and heroin is a cheaper alternative for many), adding heroin overdose fatalities to the prescription painkiller death tally is entirely appropriate. It is probably accurate to say we are in the midst of a heroin mini-epidemic, and until medical authorities and addiction experts get a handle on America’s prescription drug problem, heroin use is likely to continue rising.
Prescription drug monitoring programs that track distribution patterns of opioid painkillers and public health campaigns encouraging doctors to rely more on alternative pain reduction options are being used to help combat America’s prescription drug addiction problem. But it remains to be seen if these strategies will be effective in shifting modern medicine away from its overreliance on a class of medications that are more dangerous and addictive than other pharmaceuticals.