Heroin deaths soar compared to other opioids, new study shows

Heroin deaths have soared in recent years while deaths from other opioids have remained relatively flat. Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic painkiller, is also on the rise.

That’s according to a new study from the National Center for Health Statistics that, for the first time, isolated specific drugs linked to overdose deaths based on death certificate data.

More than 47,000 people died of drug overdose in the United States in 2014 at a rate of 14.7 deaths per 100,000 people, more than double the rate reported 15 years earlier, according to the study. And in 2014, heroin use was linked to nearly a quarter of those deaths.

When government researchers study drug overdose deaths, they typically use broad categories, such as opioids or stimulants. This time, they identified individual drugs tied to overdose deaths, based on information entered by coroners and medical examiners on death certificates between 2010 and 2014, said Holly Hedegaard, an injury epidemiologist and public health physician at the center.

“The granularity gives us a better picture of which drugs are involved,” said Margaret Warner, an epidemiologist with the center who has studied these trends for more than a decade.

Officials are getting better at identifying individual drugs on death certificates, she said, adding that lawmakers might use these numbers to inform policies and programs that target such substances.

One surprise for Hedegaard was how often the overdoses involved more than one drug. In 2014, of the nearly 37,000 overdose deaths where officials listed at least one drug on death certificates, almost half — 48 percent — involved two or more specific drugs, according to the report.

The number of people who overdose on heroin and then die has soared in recent years, the center reported. In 2010, oxycodone was responsible for the most drug overdose deaths — more than 5,200 — in the United States. At the same time, more than 3,000 people died after taking heroin, which ranked fifth in overdose deaths. By 2014, fatal overdoses of heroin more than tripled to nearly 11,000 deaths, more than any other single drug and 23 percent of all drug overdose deaths.

Nationwide, heroin deaths exceeded gun homicides, the CDC recently reported in a separate study. And now, officials are keeping an eye on fentanyl, a more potent opioid connected to 4,200 people’s deaths and has steadily climbing up the ranks.