“The latest provisional data on overdose deaths show that America’s united efforts to curb opioid use disorder and addiction are working,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement. “Lives are being saved, and we’re beginning to win the fight against this crisis.”
“Since the epidemic started, we’ve had a few years where deaths were flat or barely grew year on year, but this is the first time they’ve actually declined,” said Stanford University professor Keith Humphreys, a former senior policy adviser at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “Losing nearly 70,000 people a year of course still means we’re in the midst of a public health disaster, but this is the first real sign of hope we’ve had that we might be turning the corner.”
The data suggest that declines in deaths related to prescription painkillers may be driving the trend. There were 14,495 fatal overdoses involving prescription painkillers in 2017, compared with 12,757 in 2018. That’s the biggest decline among the drug categories tracked in the CDC’s provisional data.
Humphreys notes that doctors are prescribing fewer opioid medications than they used to. “That actually started about five years ago, which is about how long many of us thought it would take to show up in reduced overdoses,” he said. “If you don’t start millions of opioid-naive people on opioids they don’t need, it translates over the short term into few of them developing opioid problems, and in the longer term into fewer overdoses.”
Just released data on opioid prescribing shows that from 2006 to 2012, pharmaceutical companies distributed 76 billion opioid pills in the United States. In some counties, opioid prescription rates amounted to hundreds of pills for every man, woman and child, every year. Many of the high-prescribing counties saw some of the nation’s worst rates of overdose deaths.
While prescription opioid overdoses are falling, other overdose categories continue to show troubling increases. Synthetic opiates including fentanyl continued to drive tens of thousands of deaths in 2018. Cocaine and methamphetamine deaths also rose significantly last year.
In his statement, Azar noted the “concerning trends in cocaine and methamphetamine overdoses” and said that “this crisis developed over two decades and it will not be solved overnight.”
One encouraging trend in the data is the plateauing of heroin overdoses, which have remained stable since 2016. “One thing that may be making a difference is markedly increased availability of naloxone,” Humphreys said, referring to a drug that can be used to reverse the effects of opioid overdoses. “If you look at the data, we see that despite a lot of advocacy and laws, big spikes in naloxone availability didn’t occur until 2016.”