As the opioid epidemic continues to rage, drug overdose deaths rose by a massive 19 percent in the US last year, according to a compilation of preliminary data by The New York Times.
In 2015, there were 52,404 drug overdoses in the US. In 2016, The New York Times estimates that that figure lies somewhere between 59,000 and 65,000 deaths, with the most precise prediction being 62,497 deaths. This means Americans are more likely to die from a drug overdose than by a gun homicide or a car crash.
The key suspects in the rise are illegally manufactured fentanyl – a potent opioid similar to heroin – and oxycodone (sold as Oxycontin), a legal prescription painkiller that’s become synonymous with the opioid epidemic. Heroin is also associated with the increase, although some counties witnessed a drop in its use. Derivatives of these drugs and other prescription painkillers are likely to be involved, such as Percocet, Vicodin, and even the elephant tranquilizer carfentanil. Yep, elephant tranquilizers.
Maryland, Florida, Pennsylvania, Maine, and Ohio are thought to be hit with the largest increases. In some western states, the predictions suggest deaths may have leveled off or dropped.
The data from The New York Times drew on information from hundreds of health agencies looking into the extent of drug overdoses last year. The data is still preliminary, as official statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will not be published until the end of the year due to delays with toxicology reports.
While the findings are bleak and staggering, they are not necessarily surprising. As The New York Times writes, “all evidence suggests the problem has continued to worsen in 2017.”
A previous study found that a staggering 11.3 percent of American adults have used nonmedical prescription opioids at one point in their lives in 2012-2013, compared to just 4.7 percent in 2001-2002.
The causes of this monolithic problem are hazy. Although many government agencies point to the increased availability, lower prices, and increased purity of the drugs, others blame the rise in poverty and the profit-driven exploitation by pharmaceutical giants.
The opioid epidemic is often described as a uniquely American phenomenon. Nevertheless, an unrelated annual report from the European Monitoring Centre For Drugs and Drug Addiction was also released this week, showing Europe’s rate of drug deaths increased for the third year in a row. Although, it’s worth noting that this was more associated with heroin and opioid street drugs, as opposed to prescription drugs.