CDC: Most Overdoses Involve Illicit Opioids

By Pat Anson, Editor

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has released a new report further documenting the changing nature of the opioid crisis and the lesser role played by opioid pain medication in drug overdoses.

The report from the CDC’s Enhanced State Opioid Overdose Surveillance (ESOOS) program looked at nearly 12,000 opioid overdose deaths in 11 states from July 2016 to June 2017. 

Nearly 59 percent of the overdose deaths were attributed to illicit opioids like fentanyl and heroin, while 18.5% had both illicit and prescription opioids.

Less than 18% tested positive for prescription opioids only.

Many of the deaths involved someone with a criminal record or a history of substance abuse. Nearly one in ten overdose victims had been released from a prison or jail in the month preceding the overdose.

Evidence of injection drug use was found in about half of the illicit opioid deaths and about 15% had lived through a previous overdose.

OPIOID OVERDOSES (2016-2017)

Source: CDC Enhanced State Opioid Overdose Surveillance

There were also distinct differences in demographics between the illicit and prescription opioid overdoses. The average age of people who died from prescription opioids was 47, while the average age of those who died from illicit opioids was 36. Men were far more likely to overdose on an illicit opioid (73%), while more women (51%) died from a prescription opioid overdose.

“Findings from this analysis indicate that illicit opioids were a major driver of opioid deaths, especially among younger persons, and were detected in approximately three of four deaths overall. Prescription opioids were detected in approximately four of 10 deaths,” CDC researchers reported in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

Polysubstance Overdoses

Another key finding from the report was the frequent involvement of other drugs in opioid overdoses.

Benzodiazepines – a class of anti-anxiety medication that includes Xanax and Valium – were detected in over half of the prescription opioid deaths and in about one of every four illicit opioid deaths. “Benzos” depress the central nervous system and raise the risk of overdose when used with opioids. 

Gabapentin (Neurontin) – an anti-seizure drug widely prescribed off-label to treat pain -- was detected in over 21% of the prescription opioid deaths and in about 10% of the other overdoses.

“The combined use of gabapentin and opioids might be an indicator of high-risk opioid misuse and requires further study,” researchers said. “Extensive use of cocaine and benzodiazepines among deaths where both prescription and illicit opioids were detected highlights the need for prevention and treatment programs to address polysubstance use.”

Because so many drugs – both legal and illegal -- are often involved in overdoses, the CDC researchers cautioned that efforts to prevent opioid abuse “should not focus exclusively on one opioid type.”

That warning is at odds with the CDC’s own Rx Awareness program, an advertising campaign launched last year that focuses solely on the stories of people “whose lives were torn apart by prescription opioids.”

Fentanyl, heroin and other drugs commonly involved in overdoses are not addressed by the Rx Awareness campaign. 

“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 explained when launching the campaign.

 RX AWARENESS AD

RX AWARENESS AD

Earlier this year, CDC researchers acknowledged that they overestimated the number of overdoses involving prescription opioids by combining them with deaths attributed to illicit fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. The ESOOS program was launched, in part, to correct that error.

ESOOS data is considered more reliable because it includes blood toxicology reports, as well as death certificates, medical examiner and coroner reports, death scene investigations, and an overdose victim’s history of substance abuse. A total of 32 states participate in ESOOS.

The 11 states participating in the current report include: Oklahoma, New Mexico, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Kentucky.