Heroin Tops Painkillers as Leading Cause of Overdoses

By Pat Anson, Editor

One in four drug overdoses in the United States can now be blamed on heroin, according to a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that shows deaths linked to prescription painkillers falling.

The report found that fatal drug overdoses have more than doubled in the U.S. since 1999, with overdose death rates growing the fastest among whites and middle aged Americans.

In 2015, the overdose death rate was 16.3 per 100,000 people, up from 6.1 deaths per 100,000 in 1999. Ten percent of the deaths in 2015 were classified as suicides, 84% were accidental and the remainder undetermined.

The report by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics further documents the changing nature of the nation’s drug problem. Overdose deaths involving natural and semisynthetic opioid painkillers – such as hydrocodone and oxycodone – remain high, but have fallen from 29% of all overdoses in 2010 to 24% in 2015.

At the same time, deaths involving heroin have tripled, from 8% of overdoses in 2010 to 25% in 2015 – making heroin the leading cause of drug overdoses.

Deaths involving synthetic opioids, a category that includes both fentanyl and tramadol, rose from 8% of overdoses in 2010 to 18% in 2015. The U.S. has seen a surge in illicit fentanyl being sold on the black market, where it is often mixed with heroin or used to make counterfeit painkillers. More recent data from some states, like Massachusetts and Ohio, show that deaths involving fentanyl now exceed those linked to heroin and painkillers.

PERCENTAGE OF OVERDOSE DEATHS BY DRUG CATEGORY (SOURCE: CDC)

PERCENTAGE OF OVERDOSE DEATHS BY DRUG CATEGORY (SOURCE: CDC)

Perhaps the only bright spot in the report is that overdose deaths involving methadone have declined from 12% of deaths in 2010 to 6% in 2015.

The CDC analysis is based on death certificate codes, a database that is not always considered reliable because of wide variability in reporting from state to state.

“At autopsy, the substances tested for and the circumstances under which the toxicology tests are performed vary by jurisdiction,” wrote lead author Holly Hedegaard, MD, a medical epidemiologist with the National Center for Health Statistics.

“Additionally, drug overdose deaths may involve multiple drugs; therefore, a single death might be included in more than one category when describing the percentage of drug overdose deaths involving specific drugs. For example, a death that involved both heroin and fentanyl would be included in both the percentage of drug overdose deaths involving heroin and the percentage of drug overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids excluding methadone.”

Other highlights from the report:

  • West Virginia, New Hampshire, Kentucky and Ohio had the highest overdose rates in 2015
  • Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota and Texas had the lowest overdose rates
  • The age-adjusted overdose death rate among whites in 2015 was 240% higher than in 1999
  • The overdose rate for whites was nearly double that of blacks and three times higher than Hispanics
  • Overdose deaths grew among all age groups, but surged over 500% for adults aged 55 to 64

The report helps document a disturbing increase in deaths among middle-aged white Americans, first reported by Princeton University researchers in 2015.

Anne Case and Angus Deaton estimated that a "lost generation" of nearly half a million Americans died from a quiet epidemic of chronic pain, suicide, alcohol abuse and drug overdoses from 1999 to 2013.  

“This change reversed decades of progress in mortality and was unique to the United States; no other rich country saw a similar turnaround,” Case and Deaton reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “This increase for whites was largely accounted for by increasing death rates from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis.”

The rising death rate for middle-aged whites was accompanied by declines in physical health, mental health and employment, as well as increases in chronic joint pain, neck pain, sciatica and disability.