Rapid increase of synthetic opioids involved in drug overdose deaths

Bottom Line: Synthetic opioids (such as illicit fentanyl) overtook prescription opioids in 2016 as the most common drug class involved in overdose deaths in the United States.

Why The Research Is Interesting: Drug overdose deaths are at unprecedented levels in the United States. Prescription opioids have been the most common drug involved in overdose deaths, but heroin and synthetic opioids are increasingly involved in overdoses.

What and When: Mortality data based on death certificates for 2010-2016

Study Measures: Number of synthetic opioid-involved overdose deaths by year for 2010 through 2016; overdose deaths involving psychotherapeutic and illicit drugs in which synthetic opioids were involved in the death; and synthetic opioid overdose deaths in 2016 also involving drugs or alcohol

How (Study Design): This was a data analysis.

Authors: Christopher M. Jones, Pharm.D., M.P.H., Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Rockville, Maryland, and coauthors

Results:

  • Among the 42,249 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2016, 19,413 involved synthetic opioids, 17,087 involved prescription opioids, and 15,469 involved heroin
  • Synthetic opioids were involved in 45.9% of opioid-related deaths in 2016 compared with 14.3% in 2010
  • 79.7% of synthetic opioid-related overdose deaths in 2016 involved another drug or alcohol

Study Limitations: An estimated 15 percent to 25 percent of death certificates didn't specify the type of drug involved in the overdose so the numbers reported are likely underestimates.

Study Conclusions: A lack of awareness about the potency of synthetic opioids, their availability and the increasing adulteration of the illicit drug supply poses substantial risks to individual and public health.

For more details and to read the full study, please visit the For The Media website.

(doi:10.1001/jama.2018.2844)

Editor's Note: Please see the article for additional information, including other authors, author contributions and affiliations, financial disclosures, funding and support, etc.

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