The Opioid Epidemic is Growing More Deadly, New Data Suggests

August 8, 2017
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by Anjali Tsui Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

Deaths from drug overdoses — including heroin and other opioids — climbed to record levels in 2016, according to new figures released by the federal government on Tuesday.

Numbers from the National Center for Health Statistics reveal the worsening toll of the opioid epidemic in communities across the country. There were around 20 overdose deaths for every 100,000 people during the third quarter of 2016, according to the data, compared to 16.7 deaths during the same period a year earlier. More than half of all overdose deaths involve an opioid.

Overdose deaths also rose during the first half of 2016, according to government estimates. Figures for the final three months of the year are not yet available, but if trends persist, the total number of drug related deaths are on pace to eclipse the record 52,404 experienced in 2015.

Perhaps more alarming, a new study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine on Monday suggests that government estimates are failing to capture the full extent of the opioid crisis.

Christopher Ruhm, the study’s author and a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia, analyzed data from death certificates around the country and found that the opioid-related death rate was 24 percent higher than reported by the government. Deaths caused by heroin overdoses were 22 percent higher than official estimates.

Overdose deaths were vastly undercounted in Alabama, Indiana, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, according to the analysis. In these states, the opioid-related death rates were more than 100 percent higher than official estimates.

Overdose deaths are being undercounted, in part, because hospitals do not always list the specific drug that led to a person’s death. In some years, up to a quarter of all death certificates do not contain this information.

The two reports were released just days after the President’s Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis urged the White House to declare the epidemic a national emergency. “With approximately 142 Americans dying every day, America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks,” the commission wrote in an interim report to the president.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump met with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price at his private golf club in New Jersey to discuss the opioid crisis. Trump pledged to tackle the epidemic by working with health professionals and law enforcement, though he did not say whether he would act on the recommendations outlined in the commission’s interim report.

Trump instead stressed the need for improved law enforcement efforts to help combat the epidemic. “Strong law enforcement is absolutely vital to having a drug-free society,” the president said. He also said that the “best way to prevent drug addiction and overdose is to prevent people from abusing drugs in the first place.”

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