Drug Overdose Deaths in US Decline for First Time Since 1990

July 18, 2019 Updated: July 18, 2019

The number of people who died from drug overdoses in the United States dropped in 2018, marking the first decline in nearly three decades, according to figures released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on July 17.

The government estimates that 68,557 people died from overdoses in 2018, down from 72,224 in 2017. The drop is driven by the reduction in prescription opioid overdose deaths.

Meanwhile, overdose deaths involving fentanyl and cocaine continue to soar.

“The latest provisional data on overdose deaths show that America’s united efforts to curb opioid use disorder and addiction are working,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement. “Lives are being saved, and we’re beginning to win the fight against this crisis.”

“While the declining trend of overdose deaths is an encouraging sign, by no means have we declared victory against the epidemic or addiction in general,” Azar added. “This crisis developed over two decades and it will not be solved overnight.”

The steepest year-over-year declines were recorded in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Maine, Alaska, and South Dakota. Overdose deaths increased in 17 states, including all of the states on the southwest border with Mexico, where most of the illegal drugs enter the United States.

President Donald Trump campaigned on a promise to tackle the opioid crisis. His administration spearheaded a bipartisan bill that provided $3.3 billion in opioid crisis grants to addiction treatment centers across the nation.

Trump spoke about the decline in overdose deaths during a “Make America Great Again” rally in North Carolina on July 18. Overdose deaths dropped in the state to 2,300 in 2018, from 2,509 in 2017.

“We’ve taken historic action to fight the opioid epidemic—what a problem,” Trump said. “It’s gone down. First time. And in North Carolina, we’re far from finished. It’s a big problem. It declined 8 percent last year. That’s a lot, because it was just going up like a rocket.”

While deaths involving prescription opioids and heroin have declined, overdoses involving fentanyl and cocaine continue to rise. The overall increase in deaths from opioid overdoses from 2014 to 2018 was driven by fentanyl. The CDC describes fentanyl as a synthetic drug that’s 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.

It can take months for authorities to complete toxicology tests and other elements of a death investigation involving drugs. And some states report more quickly than others. The CDC is expected to report more complete data later this year.

The current overdose epidemic has killed more people than any other in U.S. history, and it had been on a soaring trajectory. From 2014 to 2017, overdose deaths jumped by 5,000 or more each year.

Experts trace the epidemic’s origins to 1995 and the marketing of the prescription painkiller OxyContin. It was meant to be safer and more effective than other prescription opioids, but some patients got hooked and found they could crush the tablets, and snort or inject them to get high.

Gradually, many turned to cheaper street drugs such as heroin and fentanyl. In 2015, heroin began causing more deaths than prescription painkillers or other drugs. In 2016, fentanyl and its close cousins became the biggest drug killer, and in 2018, they were involved in about 46 percent of the reported overdose deaths, according to the preliminary CDC data.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Follow Ivan on Twitter: @ivanpentchoukov
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