Earlier this week, the New York Times’ Josh Katz published an estimate of the number of deaths from drug overdoses in 2016. His estimate, made by cobbling together initial estimates from state departments of health, is that 59,000 to 65,000 people died of overdoses in the United States over that 12-month period.
In addition to reporting that stunning figure, an increased of up to 10,000 from 2015, he put it into context. It was more than the peak number of gun deaths annually (in 1993), the peak number of deaths during the AIDS crisis (1995) and more than the peak number of car crash deaths (1972). It is, put simply, a crisis.
His analysis, though, made me curious about how the overdose deaths looked compared to other recent causes of death.
FiveThirtyEight compiled an interesting state-by-state look at causes of death that used data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a health research center and the University of Washington. Staff from the IHME shared mortality data for a number of causes with The Post over the past quarter-century, allowing us to compare the number of deaths and the rates of mortality from various causes over that period.
The main driver of drug overdose deaths in recent years is the increase in the use of opioids, both natural and synthetic. We’ve broken that out as a category on the graphs below.
We’ll note that the data from the IHME are estimates, using a statistical model to categorize data from the National Vital Statistics System. The resulting figures are lower than Katz’s estimates, but the trend is clear.
You can view hidden causes of death by clicking on their names in the legend.
The number of deaths from each cause each year is the comparison that Katz made in his article. It’s important to note, though, that this distorts the effects of the cause of death. After all, 54,500 people dying in car accidents in 1972, when the population of the country was about 210 million, is the equivalent of 84,000 people dying today in the more populous United States.
That’s why data on health issues are usually presented as a function of every 100,000 people in population. We can adjust our data to show that calculation.
Death rate per 100,000 people
The trend of opioid deaths — and therefore, drug overdose deaths — is steadily upward. Other crises have emerged more quickly, like the AIDS epidemic. The increase in deaths linked to neurological disorders is about as steady. Deaths linked to overdose, though, have much different cultural implications and effect — and strike us, despite their escalation, as much more preventable.