Fentanyl now drives drug overdose deaths in U.S.

May 1, 2018 by Dennis Thompson, Healthday Reporter

(HealthDay)—Overdose deaths involving dangerous synthetic opioids like fentanyl have skyrocketed in recent years, surpassing deaths from prescription painkillers, a new U.S. study reveals.

Synthetic opioids—primarily fentanyl—were involved in more than 30 percent of fatal overdoses in 2016, up from roughly 8 percent in 2010, the researchers reported.

Overall, drug involving fentanyl-type drugs in the United States rose from about 3,000 in 2010 to more than 19,400 in 2016.

"This is very consistent with data from the [U.S.] Drug Enforcement Administration that shows a great increase in the trafficking and availability of synthetic opioids like illicit fentanyl over the past few years," said lead researcher Christopher Jones, of the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Prescription painkillers—the previous front-runner in U.S. —accounted for about 17,000 deaths in 2016, and heroin roughly 15,000, the study showed.

According to Linda Richter, director of policy research and analysis with the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, the findings "solidly confirm what front-line health care and law enforcement professionals in towns and cities across the country know from firsthand experience: deadly synthetic opioids like fentanyl are now the main drivers of drug deaths in the United States."

Richter warned that "these drugs are about 50 times more potent than heroin and up to 100 times more potent than morphine. It only takes a tiny amount of the drug to cause a deadly reaction."

The greatest risk is borne by people who use other opioids, such as heroin or .

Looking at heroin specifically, about 37 percent of all overdose deaths also involved synthetic opioids in 2016, up from just 1.5 percent in 2010, the researchers said.

However, people who use other drugs are increasingly at risk, too, the investigators found after analyzing data.

Synthetic opioids were implicated in more than 40 percent of all cocaine overdose deaths in 2016, up from 4 percent in 2010.

Benzodiazepine users also were at increased risk, with 31 percent of overdose deaths involving a drug like fentanyl in 2016 compared with less than 12 percent in 2010, according to the report. Common benzodiazepines include Valium and Ativan.

People might not know they are taking fentanyl when they buy heroin or cocaine, since drug dealers frequently cut those substances with much cheaper synthetic opioids, Jones said.

Large numbers of counterfeit pills also have started flooding the illicit drug market, he added. These pills look like oxycodone, Percocet, Xanax or other prescription drugs, but are actually pressed fentanyl.

"This really raises the risk pool for people who are being exposed to these high-potency opioids," Jones said.

"Oftentimes, they don't know they're being exposed to these opioids. We want to get information out that the illicit drug supply is essentially very contaminated and toxic," he added.

Prince, the late rock music star, is perhaps the highest-profile victim of counterfeit fentanyl. Law enforcement officials said his accidental 2016 death from fentanyl was traced to a look-alike, counterfeit version of the opioid painkiller Vicodin, which Prince had been taking for chronic hip pain, according to published reports.

And, Jones said, even people who think they are taking fentanyl might be blindsided.

"Some people may think, 'this is fentanyl, I've used it before and I haven't overdosed,' but the next day it could be some other analogue of that is more potent," he explained. "If they're using the same amount, it would be a much higher risk for overdose."

Richter said that this latest development shows that past efforts to curb the opioid epidemic, such as prescription drug monitoring, now "are largely missing the mark."

Instead, she suggested, "we need a comprehensive approach to substance use and addiction in this country that finally acknowledges that chasing the latest drug trend is a losing battle."

Prevention efforts that start with young children and a significantly overhauled addiction-treatment system will be key to addressing the epidemic, as well as any future crises involving abuse, Richter said.

"Finally, we need to eliminate the stigma around this very preventable and treatable disease so that those who need help get the care they deserve without being shunned as criminals or sacrificing their human dignity," she said.

Jones agreed that doctors need to do a better job steering overdose survivors into addiction treatment.

In the meantime, experts suggest that lives can be saved through broader distribution of the anti-overdose medication naloxone (Narcan), and by improved efforts to cut the supply of synthetic opioids entering the country.

The report was published in the May 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Explore further: Fentanyl fuels latest spike in opioid OD deaths

More information: Christopher Jones, PharmD, MPH, director, National Mental Health and Substance Use Policy Laboratory, U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; Linda Richter, Ph.D., director, policy research and analysis, National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse; May 1, 2018, Journal of the American Medical Association.

The Partnership for Drug-Free Kids has more about synthetic opioids.

Related Stories

Fentanyl fuels latest spike in opioid OD deaths

March 30, 2018
(HealthDay)—Drug overdose deaths continue to pile up in the United States, driven largely by the opioid epidemic and the emergence of dangerously potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl, a new government report shows.

Fentanyl in more than half of opioid deaths in 10 states

October 27, 2017
A federal report says the powerful painkiller fentanyl was involved in more than half of the recent opioid overdose deaths in 10 states.

Opioid overdoses in ERs up 30 percent as crisis worsens

March 6, 2018
Emergency rooms saw a big jump in overdoses from opioids last year—the latest evidence the nation's drug crisis is getting worse.

Fighting overdose epidemic, US bans all fentanyl-type drugs

November 9, 2017
The US Justice Department on Thursday announced a ban on all fentanyl-like drugs amid skyrocketing rates of overdoses from the synthetic opioids.

Fentanyl drives rise in opioid-linked deaths in U.S.

August 31, 2017
(HealthDay)—Fentanyl, a synthetic narcotic, is a key player in America's continuing epidemic of opioid-related overdose deaths, two new studies report.

Cause and effect: the US opioid crisis explained

April 8, 2018
The opioid epidemic ravaging the United States, and New Hampshire in particular, is born from subscription painkillers. How did it start? What do opioids do to the body? Is the crisis already past its worst?

Recommended for you

Probiotic use may reduce antibiotic prescriptions, researchers say

September 14, 2018
Use of probiotics is linked to reduced need for antibiotic treatment in infants and children, according to a review of studies that probed the benefits of probiotics, say researchers in the U.S., England and the Netherlands.

Recalled blood pressure drugs not linked to increased short term cancer risk

September 12, 2018
Products containing the withdrawn blood pressure drug valsartan are not associated with a markedly increased short term risk of cancer, finds an expedited analysis published by The BMJ today.

Sugar pills relieve pain for chronic pain patients

September 12, 2018
Someday doctors may prescribe sugar pills for certain chronic pain patients based on their brain anatomy and psychology. And the pills will reduce their pain as effectively as any powerful drug on the market, according to ...

A new approach for finding Alzheimer's treatments

September 11, 2018
Considering what little progress has been made finding drugs to treat Alzheimer's disease, Maikel Rheinstädter decided to come at the problem from a totally different angle—perhaps the solution lay not with the peptide ...

One in four older adults prescribed a benzodiazepine goes on to risky long-term use

September 10, 2018
They may start as well-intentioned efforts to calm anxiety, improve sleep or ease depression. But prescriptions for sedatives known as benzodiazepines may lead to long-term use among one in four older adults who receive them, ...

Clinical need absent, unclear in nearly 30 percent of outpatient opioid prescriptions

September 10, 2018
Nearly 30 percent of outpatient opioid prescriptions in the United States lack documented clinical reasons that justify the use of these potent drugs, according to a national analysis of physician visit records conducted ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.