US opioid epidemic: Drug overdose deaths hit all-time high

Image copyright AFP Image caption Deaths from opioid overdose have hit unprecedented levels in the US

Drug overdose deaths hit an all-time high in the US in 2018, with more than 70,000 deaths linked to opioids.

The 4.7% increase in deaths this year is in line with overall deaths from motor vehicle crashes, alcohol and firearm homicides.

Nearly two-thirds of overdose deaths were linked to painkillers and heroin, though deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl, a synthetic drug 500 times more powerful than morphine, are on the rise.

The majority of overdose deaths are now caused by opioids.

In the last decade, nearly 2 million people died from drug overdoses, while nearly 1.2 million opioid overdoses were recorded by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) last year.

People dependent on drugs and alcohol are also at risk of an overdose. Although there has been a push to reduce demand, illicit drugs are still widely available and are suspected of killing at least 50,000 people in the last four years.

An overdose is caused by the abrupt loss of consciousness, where the drug gives the sufferer a huge high but then causes his or her breathing to stop, or stop and then return.

Image copyright Getty Images Image caption A black market in synthetic opioid fentanyl

The main culprit in the increase in opioid overdose deaths is increasingly deadly fentanyl. The painkiller is a synthetic opioid 50 times more powerful than morphine and 2,500 times more powerful than heroin. It is usually mixed with heroin and then sold legally as a heroin substitute.

Illicit fentanyl, which is often mixed with other drugs, can be mixed with opiates and other drugs, increasing potency and decreasing the potential for overdose. It was the main factor behind the spike in fatal drug overdoses in 2017.

DEA records show there were 5,337 fentanyl overdose deaths in 2018, up 62% on the year before. This came as opioid overdose deaths more than doubled from 2000.

Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin

Heroin and opioid overdose deaths more than doubled since 2000

Synthetic opioids fentanyl and carfentanil top the list

DEA says 4,731 drug overdose deaths in 2018 could be attributed to opioids. Another 2,776 deaths were linked to methamphetamine, 4,368 to alcohol and 411 to poisoning.

President Donald Trump announced in November his plans to launch a new initiative to address the opioid crisis.

He also directed federal agencies to declare a public health emergency, saying he was determined to end the crisis “because it’s not acceptable for American families”.


Deaths from opioids in the US totaled 79,404 in 2018, according to the DEA.

Deaths from opioids in the US totaled 74,642 in 2017, up 3.8% from 2016.

Deaths from automobile accidents, which include fatal, total 3,702 in 2018.

Deaths from firearm homicides in the US for the year totaled 2,466, according to the DEA.

The top three drugs causing drug overdose deaths in the US in 2018 were heroin, fentanyl and hydrocodone (brand name Vicodin) or oxycodone (OxyContin).

Deaths from opioids more than doubled from 2000.

Deaths from homicides increased by more than seven times during the same period, while traffic fatalities remained flat.

Deaths related to children aged 0-14 accounted for 27.3% of opioid deaths.

Deaths from prescription drugs accounted for more than 37,000, more than 16,000 of which were painkillers.

Deaths due to illegal drugs doubled to 42,000 in 2018.

Deaths to street drugs from fentanyl and carfentanil more than doubled to 15,000 in 2018.

Deaths related to prescription drugs with little or no evidence of misuse accounted for 17,000 in 2018.

Published in: National Public Radio (NPR)

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