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Drug overdose deaths decreased in 2018 for the first time in 30 years

Overall overdose death rates decreased by 4.1% in 2018, but death rates from synthetic opioids increased by 10% in 2018. Deaths rose again in 2019.

Ryan Holets, a police officer from Albuquerque, New Mexico, claimed on the second night of the Republican National Convention 2020 that drug overdose deaths decreased in 2018 for the first time in 30 years.

The CDC data takes into account deaths caused by overdoses of prescription opioids, semisynthetic opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone, psychostimulants like cocaine and synthetic opioids. Prescription opioids are often used to medically treat chronic and acute pain and, when used appropriately, can be an important component of treatment but misuses can lead to opioid addiction, overdoses, and deaths. Synthetic opioids are illegal drugs that are made in laboratories that mimic the effects of natural opioids. Some examples of synthetic opioids include fentanyl, fentanyl analogs, methadone, and tramadol. Of these methadone is prescribed as a pain medication and for maintenance treatment of other opioid addictions.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that ‘In 2018, 67,367 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States. The age-adjusted rate of overdose deaths decreased by 4.6% from 2017 (21.7 per 100,000) to 2018 (20.7 per 100,000). Opioids—mainly synthetic opioids (other than methadone)—are currently the main driver of drug overdose deaths. Opioids were involved in 46,802 overdose deaths in 2018 (69.5% of all drug overdose deaths). Two out of three (67.0%) opioid-involved overdose deaths involved synthetic opioids.’

A report published by the CDC in January 2020, titled Drug Overdose Deaths in the United States, 1999–2018, says, ‘The age-adjusted rate of drug overdose deaths increased from 6.1 per 100,000 standard population in 1999 to 21.7 in 2017. The rate increased on average by 10% per year from 1999 through 2006, by 2% per year from 2006 through 2013, and by 14% per year from 2013 through 2016. The rate in 2018 (20.7) was 4.6% lower than the rate in 2017 (21.7)’, indicating the fall in drug overdose deaths for the first time in 28 years.

However, a press release issued by CDC on March 18, 2020, indicated opioid overdose deaths remain a problem. It says, 'Opioids were involved in more than 46,000 drug overdose deaths in 2018. Of the 39 jurisdictions included in the analyses, 11 states and the District of Columbia saw decreased rates of death involving opioids overall. Synthetic opioids were involved in 31,335 overdose deaths — nearly half of all drug overdose deaths in 2018. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF) likely drove the increase in deaths involving synthetic opioids (excluding methadone) from 2017 to 2018. Synthetic opioid overdose-involved death rates increased from 2017 to 2018 among males and females, people age 25 years and older, non-Hispanic whites, non-Hispanic blacks, Hispanics, and non-Hispanic Asian/Pacific Islanders.'

The report also quoted Nana Wilson Ph.D., an epidemiologist at CDC saying, 'Opioid overdoses decreased from 2017 to 2018 but still remain high. Efforts must be strengthened to maintain and accelerate decreases in deaths involving prescription opioids and heroin and to prevent continued increases in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids.'

Drug overdose deaths in the United States rose again by 4.6% in 2019 to 70,980, including 50,042 involving opioids, according to preliminary data released in July 2020 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The New York Times stated in a report, ‘Drug deaths have risen an average of 13 percent so far this year over last year, according to mortality data from local and state governments collected by The New York Times, covering 40 percent of the U.S. population.’

Holets’s claim about there being a drop in drug overdose deaths in 2018 has a ring of truth only if the total number of U.S. drug overdose deaths involving any illicit or prescription opioid drug from 1999 to 2018 are taken into account. The decline in drug overdose deaths in 2018 is primarily attributed to the decrease in deaths caused by prescription opiods. Deaths cause by illegal synthetic opiods (other than methadone), heroin, cocaine continued to rise steeply indicating that the drug abuse problem is far from being over in the U.S.

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