Illegal Fentanyl Major Cause of Rising Overdose Deaths

By Pat Anson, Editor

Drug overdose deaths in the United States rose by 6.5% last year, in large part fueled by the increasing use of illicit fentanyl in many parts of the country. Over 47,000 poisoning deaths were reported in 2014, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

After declining in the two year previous years, the CDC said there was a 9% increase in the number of deaths involving opioids. In 2014, opioids were "involved" in 28,647 deaths, or nearly two-thirds of all overdoses.

The agency admits, however, that some deaths may have been misclassified and some of the data is suspect. For example, if a doctor or medical examiner reports that an opioid was found in someone’s system after they die, the agency considers the death “opioid related” whether the drug was used medically or non-medically. Overdose deaths from specific drugs identified on death certificates also vary widely from state to state, an indication some of the data may not be reliable.

The statistics are further muddied by the fact that legal and some illegal opioids are lumped together in the same category.

“Historically, CDC has programmatically characterized all opioid pain reliever deaths (natural and semi-synthetic opioids, methadone, and other synthetic opioids) as 'prescription' opioid overdoses,” the agency acknowledged in its report.

The largest increase in the rate of drug overdose deaths involved synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl and tramadol, which nearly doubled from 1.0 deaths per 100,000 to 1.8 per 100,000.

Tramadol is a weaker acting opioid that many doctors began prescribing for pain after hydrocodone was reclassified as a Schedule II medication in 2014, making it harder for many patients to obtain hydrocodone. The number of tramadol prescriptions dispensed in the U.S. has nearly doubled since 2010, coinciding with a decline in hydrocodone prescriptions.

Fentanyl, which is also classified as a Schedule II controlled substance, is a powerful painkiller that is increasingly being abused by addicts. Drug dealers are lacing heroin with fentanyl to make it more potent, while others are cutting up fentanyl patches so they can smoked or ingested.  Earlier this year, the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a nationwide alert about the abuse, diversion and illegal manufacture of fentanyl.

Thousands of people have died from fentanyl overdoses in the U.S. and Canada, but because of the nature of the drug it’s impossible to tell whether it was prescribed legally and used for medical reasons or manufactured illegally and used recreationally.  

“Toxicology tests used by coroners and medical examiners are unable to distinguish between prescription and illicit fentanyl,” the CDC report said. “Based on reports from states and drug seizure data, however, a substantial portion of the increase in synthetic opioid deaths appears to be related to increased availability of illicit fentanyl, although this cannot be confirmed with mortality data. For example, five jurisdictions (Florida, Maryland, Maine, Ohio, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) that reported sharp increases in illicit fentanyl seizures, and screened persons who died from a suspected drug overdose for fentanyl, detected similarly sharp increases in fentanyl-related deaths.”

The agency also admits that some heroin deaths might be misclassified as morphine, a prescription drug, because morphine and heroin are metabolized similarly. That might contribute to an underreporting of heroin overdose deaths.

"The increasing number of deaths from opioid overdose is alarming," said CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD. "The opioid epidemic is devastating American families and communities. To curb these trends and save lives, we must help prevent addiction and provide support and treatment to those who suffer from opioid use disorders. This report also shows how important it is that law enforcement intensify efforts to reduce the availability of heroin, illegal fentanyl, and other illegal opioids."

Frieden also used the overdose study to lobby for his agency’s much criticized effort to enact new guidelines for opioid prescribing. Frieden told the Associated Press that Americans were “primed” for heroin use because of their exposure to opioid pain medications.

"We want to make sure we don't go so fast that there are questions about our process, but we certainly don't want to see any further delay," Frieden said, explaining a recent decision to delay implementing the guidelines and seek more public input.

"But there is no way we can wait for better evidence while so many people are dying," he said.