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America’s death rate from drugs has doubled in 15 years

Counterfeit hydrocodone seized by US authorities.
  • Gwynn Guilford
By Gwynn Guilford


Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Opioids continue to wreak deadly havoc in America, even after a half-decade of efforts to stem the epidemic. In 2015, more people died of overdosing on opioids than ever before: 33,000 people in 2015, according to a new study (pdf) from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thanks largely to surging opioid use, the age-adjusted rate of fatal drug overdoses is now 16.3 per 100,000 people, about twice what it was in 2002.

That makes drug overdoses quite a bit deadlier than other major mortality causes in America.

Certain states are suffering a lot more than others. In West Virginia and New Hampshire, for instance, the overdose fatality rate is more than twice that for the US in aggregate.

The new data are consistent with a shift to heroin and synthetic opioids, as governments have tightened access to prescription painkillers—OxyContin and Vicodin, for instance—and as pharmaceutical companies have made the pills harder to abuse. Limited availability to painkillers has been driving addicts to take up heroin and, increasingly, fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be as much as 100 times more potent than heroin. In 2010—just before it started getting harder to buy prescription painkillers—heroin and synthetic opioids accounted for about 8% of overdoses apiece. Five years later, heroin caused a quarter of overdose deaths, while synthetic opioids were responsible for 18%.

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