Broader Public Health Campaign Needed for Drug Crisis

By Pat Anson, Editor

Overdose deaths in the United States involving illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids have surpassed those linked to prescription opioids, according to new research published in JAMA.  Researchers say drugs used to treat depression and anxiety are also involved in more overdoses than opioid pain medication.

The study by researchers at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) mirrors a similar report released by the CDC in March. The findings further demonstrate how federal and state efforts to combat the overdose crisis are wrongly focused on prescription pain medication as the primary cause of the overdose crisis.

“These findings underscore the rapidly increasing involvement of synthetic opioids in the drug overdose epidemic and in recent increases in overdose deaths involving illicit and psychotherapeutic drugs," wrote lead author Christopher Jones, PharmD, SAMHSA.

“Lack of awareness about synthetic opioid potency, variability, availability, and increasing adulteration of the illicit drug supply poses substantial risks to individual and public health. Widespread public health messaging is needed.”

Over 19,400 overdoses were linked to synthetic opioids in 2016, while 17,087 deaths involved opioid pain medication.


Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are far more potent than other opioids such as oxycodone. Fentanyl is prescribed legally for severe pain, but illicit fentanyl has become a scourge on the black market, where it is often mixed with heroin and cocaine or used in the manufacture of counterfeit medication. It is assumed that illicit fentanyl and its chemical cousins account for the vast majority of deaths caused by synthetic opioids.  

Another key finding of the SAMHSA study is that psychotherapeutic drugs used to treat depression, anxiety and other mental disorders are now involved in more overdoses than any other class of medication. They include antidepressants, benzodiazepines, anti-psychotics, barbiturates and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) drugs such as Adderall.


Over 25,000 overdoses in 2016 involved psychotherapeutic drugs.

That compares to nearly 13,900 deaths linked to the medications in 2010, an increase of 45 percent.

"I think what you're seeing in the data in the last couple of years is that the illicit drug supply has become substantially more dangerous than it has been, and there's this level of unpredictability and lack of awareness of what are exactly the substances that people are using that are contributing to the overdose risk," Jones told Medscape.

That lack of awareness is due in part to poorly designed public health messaging. For example, last year the CDC launched a public relations campaign in 14 states that focused exclusively on warning of the risks associated with prescription opioids. Fentanyl, heroin and other drugs commonly involved in overdoses are not addressed in the Rx Awareness campaign because the CDC didn't want to risk “diluting” its primary message.

Specificity is a best practice in communication, and the Rx Awareness campaign messaging focuses on the critical issue of prescription opioids. Given the broad target audience, focusing on prescription opioids avoids diluting the campaign messaging,” the CDC said.  

SAMHSA researchers say nearly 80 percent of the synthetic opioid overdoses in 2016 involved multiple drugs, indicating that many of the decedents are abusing a wide variety of substances. The most commonly involved drugs were another opioid (48%), heroin (48%), cocaine (22%), prescription opioids (21%), benzodiazepines (17%), alcohol (11%), psychostimulants (5%) and antidepressants (5%).

About 20 percent of the death certificates did not specify the type of drug involved, so the number of reported overdoses are likely underestimated.