Lies, Damned Lies, and Overdose Statistics

By Pat Anson, Editor

“There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

That famous quote, often attributed to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, was first used by Mark Twain in 1906. One hundred and ten years later, we still don’t know who said it first or why.

Which brings us to overdoses -- and the confusing, sometimes exaggerated, and often contradictory statistics on how many Americans are dying daily from opioid pain medication.  

According to the nation’s news media, anywhere from dozens to hundreds of Americans are dying every day from drug overdoses -- or as the Los Angeles Times boldly claimed today, “Overdose deaths now total 130 every day, or roughly the capacity of a Boeing 737.”

A Boeing 737? Really?

According to Boeing, a 737 can hold between 85 and 215 passengers, depending on the model. But maybe the Times is just giving us a ballpark estimate -- which may be entirely appropriate, given the muddled and murky reporting we get on overdoses.

The Times story got me curious about how other news organizations are reporting the overdose numbers. Here is a sampling:

100 Americans die of drug overdoses each day.” The Washington Post

 “Dozens of Americans die daily from overdoses of pain relievers, heroin and other opioids.” Associated Press

“The United States averages 110 legal and illegal drug overdose deaths every day.”  Pittsburgh Post Gazette

The number of these deaths reached...  about 125 Americans every day.” New York Times

 “More than 120 Americans die of opiate overdoses every day.” Logan Daily News

           “44 people in the U.S. die every day from overdose of prescription painkillers.” Des Moines Register

“More than 40 Americans die every day from prescription opioid overdoses.” Fox News

“Roughly 78 Americans die every day from overdoses of opioids.” Fox News

Yes, that’s right, Fox News reported two different estimates. To be fair, the numbers depend on whether you're counting all drug overdoses, opioid overdoses alone, or just prescription painkiller overdoses. Still, the numbers are all over the map and probably confusing to most readers.

Advocacy groups and politicians also play the numbers game:

“Every day, 46 Americans die from using prescription painkillers.” American Association of Retired Persons

“Every day, about 60 people die from opioid overdoses -- 44 from narcotic painkillers and 16 from heroin.” Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing

“Over 130 Americans die every day from opioid and heroin overdoses.”  The Police Assisted Addiction Recovery Initiative

“Each day, 129 people die from drug overdoses in our country.”  Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont)

“Every day, 51 Americans die as a result of prescription opioid overdose.” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia)  

So who is right? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 28,647 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2014, which works out to about 78 per day -- the number most often reported by the nation’s news media.

It is also a very misleading number, because many of those deaths include overdoses from heroin, illicit fentanyl and other illegal opioids. Take out the illegal drugs and the CDC admits that only about “half of all opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid.”

That estimate too is misleading, because some heroin and illicit fentanyl deaths are wrongly reported as prescription opioid overdoses, because the coroner or medical examiner never actually performed a toxicology test on the deceased. The CDC admits that as well, but not too loudly.

So the next time you see someone report on the number of overdose deaths in the United States (and tries to fill a Boeing 737 in the process), remember that quote about “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

And thank either Mark Twain or Benjamin Disraeli for reminding us that statistics don’t always tell the truth.