More persons died from drug overdoses in the United States in 2014 than during any previous year on record, the Centers for Disease Control announced Dec. 18.
From 2000 to 2014, nearly half a million persons in the United States have died from drug overdoses, the CDC said. In 2014, there were approximately one and a half times more drug overdose deaths in the United States than deaths from motor vehicle crashes.
Opioids, primarily prescription pain relievers and heroin, are the main drugs associated with overdose deaths. In 2014, opioids were involved in 28,647 deaths, or 61 percent of all drug overdose deaths; the rate of opioid overdoses has tripled since 2000. The 2014 data demonstrate that the United States’ opioid overdose epidemic includes two distinct but interrelated trends: a 15-year increase in overdose deaths involving prescription opioid pain relievers and a recent surge in illicit opioid overdose deaths, driven largely by heroin.
Natural and semisynthetic opioids, which include the most commonly prescribed opioid pain relievers, oxycodone and hydrocodone, continue to be involved in more overdose deaths than any other opioid type. Although this category of opioid drug overdose death had declined in 2012 compared with 2011, and had held steady in 2013, there was a 9% increase in 2014.
Drug overdose deaths involving heroin continued to climb sharply, with heroin overdoses more than tripling in 4 years. This increase mirrors large increases in heroin use across the country and has been shown to be closely tied to opioid pain reliever misuse and dependence. Past misuse of prescription opioids is the strongest risk factor for heroin initiation and use, specifically among persons who report past-year dependence or abuse. The increased availability of heroin, combined with its relatively low price (compared with diverted prescription opioids) and high purity appear to be major drivers of the upward trend in heroin use and overdose, the CDC said.
The rate of drug overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids nearly doubled between 2013 and 2014. This category includes both prescription synthetic opioids (e.g., fentanyl and tramadol) and non-pharmaceutical fentanyl manufactured in illegal laboratories (illicit fentanyl). Toxicology tests used by coroners and medical examiners are unable to distinguish between prescription and illicit fentanyl. Based on reports from states and drug seizure data, however, a substantial portion of the increase in synthetic opioid deaths appears to be related to increased availability of illicit fentanyl, although this cannot be confirmed with mortality data.
For example, five jurisdictions (Florida, Maryland, Maine, Ohio, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) that reported sharp increases in illicit fentanyl seizures, and screened persons who died from a suspected drug overdose for fentanyl, detected similarly sharp increases in fentanyl-related deaths.
Finally, illicit fentanyl is often combined with heroin or sold as heroin. Illicit fentanyl might be contributing to recent increases in drug overdose deaths involving heroin. Therefore, increases in illicit fentanyl-associated deaths might represent an emerging and troubling feature of the rise in illicit opioid overdoses that has been driven by heroin.