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Federal data shows 76 billion opioid pills were distributed from 2006 to 2012. Photo by Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

Deaths from drug overdoses reach record-high levels in 2014

Nearly 50,000 people died from drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2014, a new record driven by the deaths of heroin addicts and people misusing prescription painkillers, according to new federal statistics.

Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 47,055 drug overdose deaths, more than any previous year. According to figures the CDC released Friday in its “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,” 61 percent of those deaths involved opioids, including prescribed pain relievers, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, and heroin. This year, more than six out of 10 of drug overdose deaths were linked to opioids, the CDC reported.

“The increasing number of deaths from opioid overdose is alarming,” CDC director Thomas Frieden said in the statement. “The opioid epidemic is devastating American families and communities. To curb these trends and save lives, we must help prevent addiction and provide support and treatment to those who suffer from opioid use disorders.”

According to the CDC, nearly half a million Americans have died from drug overdoses the past 15 years. The highest rates of drug overdose deaths in 2014 were found in New Mexico, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia, where there were 35.5 deaths per 100,000 people, the CDC reported. These deaths were also on the upswing for both sexes, non-Hispanic whites and blacks, and adults aged 25 to 65.

Opioid painkillers accounted for a nine percent increase of deaths in 2014 to 813 people. According to the CDC, prescriptions for these painkillers have quadrupled since 1999.

Opioid painkillers like oxycodone, which is prescribed for relief from injuries, arthritis, lower back pain, etc., have a high potential for abuse. The CDC reported that about two million Americans abused opioid painkillers in 2013.

Meanwhile, 10,574 people died from heroin use in 2014, a 26 percent increase for the year. The CDC report said heroin overdoses more than tripled in four years.

Sam Quinones told the NewsHour in February how painkiller abuse can lead to a heroin addiction.

“Oxycodone is very, very similar. Almost identical to heroin,” he said. “The problem is that there is a black market in these pills now, because they have been so widely prescribed … So we had this kind of rising sea level of pills all across the country. A very deep black market developed in which these pills now cost a dollar a milligram. Most of these pills come in 30, 40, 80 milligram doses. That means you are having to pay 30, 40, 80 bucks a pill, and a lot of people getting addicted.”

Quinones said he met people who had a $400-a-day addictions, but “heroin comes in, and it is a fifth to a 10th cheaper than that. A lot of these folks, getting addicted to the pills, have already begun injecting,” he said. “And injecting heroin isn’t much different from injecting these pills. It just happens to be far cheaper.”