Despite increased efforts to combat the national painkiller abuse and addiction epidemic, the findings of a new report suggest that opioid deaths in the United States continued to increase last year, killing 72,000 people nationwide.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) announced the findings of its 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment (PDF) last week, warning that opioids caused the largest number of deaths last year of any illicit drug class since 2001.
The report is a strategic assessment of the threat drug trafficking and drug abuse pose to the United States. It combines data from federal, local, state and tribal law enforcement, as well as public health data and open source reporting and data from other agencies.
According to the findings, 72,000 people in the U.S. died of opioid overdoses in 2017. That’s a rate of about 200 overdoses per day, and is a significant increase from 174 people per day who died in 2016. Every year since 2011, drug-related deaths have outnumbered the deaths by firearms, auto accidents, suicide and murder.
“This report underscores the scope and magnitude of the ongoing opioid crisis in the United States,” Acting DEA Administrator Uttam Dhillon said in a press release. “The information in the report represents data and critical intelligence from our law enforcement partners that was gathered over the past year. This report highlights the necessity of using all the tools at our disposal to fight this epidemic, and we must remain steadfast in our mission to combat all dangerous drugs of abuse.”
The findings also suggest that fentanyl was a major cause of opioid-related deaths, accounting for nearly 30,000 fatalities. Heroin-related deaths are also on the rise.
The DEA warns that many of the illicit drugs are coming in primarily from Mexico and that prison gangs and street gangs continue to control distribution. Border seizures increased from 8,900 pounds in 2010 to nearly 82,000 pounds in 2018.
However, the report stressed that controlled prescription drugs (CPDs) were still responsible for the most overdose deaths.
Research indicates ER doctors often prescribe more opioids than they realize. Narcotic painkillers are also often overprescribed after hip and knee replacement surgery.
In some cases, doctors are responding to financial incentives offered by drug companies to prescribe more opioids.
“As CPD abuse has increased significantly, traffickers are now disguising other opioids as CPDs in attempts to gain access to new users,” the report states. “Most individuals who report misuse of prescription pain relievers cite physical pain as the most common reason for abuse; these misused pain relievers are most frequently obtained from a friend or relative.”