Pop legend Prince died of an accidental overdose of the painkiller Fentanyl on April 21 at his home in Chanahassen, Minn., at the age of 57. (Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

Prince's death earlier this year was the result of an overdose of opioids, the Associated Press reported on Thursday, citing a law enforcement official. Now confirmed by the medical examiner, Prince has just become a key example of a problem that has spiked in recent years — and that has become a key undercurrent in American politics.

The most recent annual data on opioid overdoses comes from 2014 by way of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the end of 2015, the CDC released figures for that year and the trend back to 1999. Sixty-one percent of drug-overdose deaths in 2014 involved some sort of opioid, including heroin. The recent uptick in heroin overdoses is obvious, but the longer-term growth of opioid deaths is also visible.


The CDC's report identifies the trend as an "epidemic," with the death rate from drug overdoses doubling between 2000 and 2014. Preliminary data for 2015 indicates that the first quarter of last year hit a new high in the overdose death rate, 16.1 deaths per 100,000 people. So many people are dying of drug overdoses that it's easing the shortage of donated organs.

Prince's death also exemplifies the trend in another way: He was a man. Of the 47,055 deaths in 2014, 61 percent of the victims were men. Prince was slightly older than many overdose victims (the most common age range is 45 to 54), and his home state of Minnesota has one of the lowest rates of drug overdoses.

The states with the highest rates of drug overdoses in 2014 were West Virginia and New Hampshire, which is part of the reason that addiction has been a topic in the 2016 presidential race. Hillary Clinton's website has a detailed list of ways she would tackle the issue as president. Speaking in West Virginia before the primary in that state last month, Bernie Sanders told a crowd that he'd been in the southern part of the state, where "we are facing a major opiate and heroin addiction crisis" that should be treated as "a health-related issue, not a criminal issue." It's been pointed out that the overdose epidemic has heavily affected older white men — the same group of people who have powered Donald Trump's candidacy. Trump mentioned the problem while he was appealing to voters in New Hampshire, arguing that his wall on the Mexican border would curtail illegal drugs.

Over the past 12 months, there's been an uptick in Google searches for "opioid" in the United States. It hit a peak in late April — shortly after Prince's death and revelations that he'd had a close call with painkillers shortly before he died.


In other words, Prince's death has already drawn attention to the problem. The question for candidates at every level of government is how it can be fixed.