Deaths from opioid overdoses just jumped again

Black tar heroin Mexico US drugs free baseOrange County Deputy Probation Officer Erin Merritt holds a spoon with black-tar heroin, which she found in a probationer's apartment in Santa Ana, California, July 22, 2011.REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Deaths from opioid overdoses just jumped again.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which released its latest report on Friday, the most recent tragic increase follows a pattern that's been ongoing since 1999.

However, the new report details some striking changes in two areas: First, the specific drugs involved in the deaths; and second, the age groups of the people most affected.

For example, while fatal overdoses involving so-called "natural," "semi-synthetic," and "synthetic" opioids (morphine, oxycodone, methadone) all fell between 2010 and 2015, the percentage of fatal overdoses involving heroin tripled.

More specifically:

  • In 2010, 29% of fatal overdoses involved so-called "natural" and "semisynthetic" opioids (morphine, oxycodone), while only about 12% involved methadone, a "synthetic" opioid. Five years later, the percentage of fatal overdoses involving these drugs fell to 24% and 6%, respectively.
  • In contrast, fatal overdoses involving heroin skyrocketed from 8% in 2010 to 25% in 2015 - essentially tripling.

opioid drug overdose deaths BY TYPE OF DRUGCDC/NCHS

Different age groups were also hit far harder by fatal opioid overdose than others. While overdose death rates increased for all age groups, the greatest increase was in adults aged 55-64. Still, the group with the highest overall rates of fatal overdose was slightly younger - adults aged 45-54.


  • The percentage increase of drug overdose deaths among adults aged 55-64 rose from 4.2 per 100,000 in 1999 to 21.8 in 2015.
  • In 2015, adults aged 45-54 had the highest death rate from drug overdose at 30 deaths per 100,000.

opioid drug overdose deaths BY AGECDC/NCHS

The trouble with (prescription) painkillers

Heroin and opioid painkillers - including prescription ones - have a problematic relationship: Research suggests that since they act similarly in the brain (opioid painkillers are often referred to by some doctors as "heroin lite"), taking one (even "as directed") can increase one's susceptibility to becoming hooked on the other.

And while the overdose death rate for illicitly-obtained opioids like fentanyl - the drug involved in the death of musician Prince - is skyrocketing (it jumped 73% from 2014 to 2015, according to last year's version of this CDC report), the overdose death rate from many other legal prescription opioids is rising far more slowly (4% over the same period, that report found). That could suggest that recent efforts aimed at curbing widespread over-prescribing practices could be starting to have a positive impact.

Fentanyl is a tricky drug, though: It's available legally (with a prescription) and illegally (on the black market). It's also 50 times stronger than pure heroin.

fentanylFentanyl pills.AP/Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner's Office

As a result of these factors, tackling the overdose epidemic will likely require not only curbing doctors' overprescribing practices, but also curbing the manufacture of dangerous illicit drugs, lessening the stigma surrounding drug use and addiction, and beginning to treat addiction as what it is - a learning disorder.

"The prescription opioid and heroin epidemic continues to devastate communities and families across the country," Michael Botticelli, the former White House Director of National Drug Control Policy, said in a statement last year, "in large part because too many people still do not get effective substance use disorder treatment."

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