Concerns grow as fentanyl fuels rise in opioid overdose deaths

HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR:  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, overdose deaths involving prescription opioids have quadrupled since 1999, as have the sales of such drugs.  In 2014 alone, more than 14,000 people died from overdoses involving drugs such as methadone, oxycodone and hydrocodone.

And today, at least half of all overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid.  There is another drug in that group that may be lesser-known but perhaps even more lethal.  It's called fentanyl, and joining me now from Boston to discuss the growing concerns over its impact is David Armstrong of the science and health reporting news outlet "STAT."

David, thanks for joining us. Put fentanyl in perspective for us.  Really, since the death of Prince, that word has kind of crept into people's psyche, but how significant is this drug when we're talking about these overdoses?

DAVID ARMSTRONG, STAT:  Well, it's significant because two main reasons.  One is its potency.  Fentanyl is anywhere from 50 to 100 times more powerful, more potent than heroin, which is already more potent and powerful than other opioids people have been abusing.  And the other thing that's frightening about fentanyl is fentanyl is that it is being mislabeled or counterfeited, in essence, as other opioids.  So, people think they're taking heroin.  They're actually taking fentanyl.  And, also, we're now seeing a big increase in fentanyl being labeled as painkillers, you know, regular prescription pain pills that people buy on the streets that's actually fentanyl.

So, that's where the danger comes in, these two things — the potency and the fact that a number of people are unaware that they're taking this drug.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Help us understand on the sort of arsenal of pain killers where does fentanyl stack up?

DAVID ARMSTRONG:  I mean, it's really at the top of the heap.  The difference between fentanyl and heroin, for instance, is fentanyl is synthetic.  And it's made in a laboratory, and it's made in a way that is so much more potent than heroin, that people really don't understand or comprehend it on the street.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  All right.  So, if it's made in a lab, aren't there ways to restrict the in-flow of the labs that are producing it and how it gets on to the streets?

DAVID ARMSTRONG:  Well, obviously, not tow far, because it's flooding the marketplace in this country.  A primary source of fentanyl is China, and so far, the efforts by the DEA and Customs and other agencies have been really futile in trying to slow the arrival of this drug here.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  Tell us a little bit about the street economics of the value of this drug, basic economics, as the supply increases of something, the price would go down — the supply of, say, lot of pain killers on the market.  So, how is it that fentanyl is making these inroads?

DAVID ARMSTRONG:  So, we're talking about a factor 10, 15, 20 times more profitable for a drug dealer to use fentanyl, whether it's, you know, sold as heroin, cut into heroin, or sold as a prescription pain killer, than those actual products.  And the high that it provides is on par with heroin or even better.

So, it's really these two things coming together that have helped cause the explosion.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  And is this explosion uniform across the country?  Are there pockets?

DAVID ARMSTRONG:  The heaviest pockets so far have been the Northeast, throughout the Midwest.  Ohio has been particularly hard hit.  Since the 4th of July in Akron, there have been nearly 300 overdoses and two dozen deaths that the police there believe is linked to a form of fentanyl called carfentanyl.  And the legal use of carfentanyl is to sedate elephants.

Yesterday, in Lafayette, Louisiana, the police there warned of a huge increase in deaths from fentanyl.  California, Florida– it's everywhere now.  It's expanding, and at a rapid pace.

 HARI SREENIVASAN:  All right.  David Armstrong from news site "STAT" — thanks for joining me.

DAVID ARMSTRONG:  Thanks for having me.

Recently in Health