CDC Reports Decrease in Drug Overdose Deaths in 2023, For First Time in 5 Years

Despite overall declines, overdose deaths increased in the western portions of the country, according to the data

Drug overdose deaths dropped for the first time since 2018, according to the findings of a new federal report. However, researchers warn that there are still concerning trends in certain areas of the U.S., specifically impacting western states.

The overall decrease in drug overdose deaths comes amid a decades-long opioid epidemic, where rates have been consistently increasing year after year.

According to drug overdose data from the National Vital Statistics System, released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Center for Health Statistics on May 15, the number of drug overdoses decreased by 4% in 2023, but still led to the deaths of more than 100,000 Americans.

The CDC’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Deb Houry, issued a statement alongside the new data, applauding the efforts to reduce the number of drug overdose deaths nationwide. However, Houry cautioned that the efforts and strategies to reduce drug overdose deaths must be renewed to help reduce the number of deaths even more.

“The decrease is a testament to the hard work by all of our partners in this effort and the work being done on the ground as part of a coordinated federal effort on prevention, services, and harm reduction,” Houry wrote. “However, this does not mean we have accomplished our mission.”

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Ongoing opioid epidemic

The opioid epidemic has long put drug overdose deaths in the national spotlight. The powerful narcotic painkillers accounted for nearly 70% of all overdose deaths in 2018.

The FDA warned the opioid crisis continues to be a national public health emergency.

Synthetic opioids like fentanyl drove an increase in opioid deaths by more than 1,000% from 2013 to 2019. While the onset of the epidemic has largely been linked to irresponsible doctor prescribing habits and pill mills, the epidemic has since turned into something much worse.

Drug Overdoses Decreased in 2023

The new data indicates that drug overdose deaths dropped by 4% from 2022 to 2023, but the numbers are still four times the rate it was 20 years ago and involves a variety of drugs compared to years past, the CDC found.

Synthetic opioids like fentanyl continue to be a driving factor for overdose deaths and still are a factor in 70% of overdose deaths. Many drug dealers mix fentanyl into other drugs, like heroin, to cut the drugs and make them cheaper and stronger.

Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin, and many illicit drug dealers also put the opioid into counterfeit pills, sold as alternatives to OxyContin and Xanax. Users often don’t realize they are receiving fentanyl, putting them at a much greater risk of overdose and death.

Overdose deaths involving stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine also increased by 2% in 2023, leading to more than 66,000 deaths. Stimulant overdose deaths also often included fentanyl as well.

Across the country, different regions experienced increases and decreases. Eastern and Midwestern states experienced declines in overdose deaths, while Alaska, Oregon, and Washington saw an increase of 27% from 2022 to 2023. Western states like California and Nevada, as well as the Northwest region, experienced increases in overdose deaths.

In Maine, 82% of overdose deaths were caused by meth or cocaine, and many of those involved fentanyl too.

Overall, the data shows improvements and decreases in overdoses. However, according to the CDC, a similar decrease was seen in 2018, and that was followed by significant increases in overdose deaths in the four years that followed.

Houry noted that more work is needed to continue to reduce overdose deaths. Many of the programs implemented were helpful in reducing overdoses.

However, the reasons people turn to illegal drugs can range from physical pain, abuse, emotional pain, economic stressors, or other issues that continue to go unaddressed. The CDC called for more health and community programs focusing on these root reasons to help address why people turn to drugs.

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