The Opioid Overdose Crisis

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Page last updated June 10, 2020 by Doug McVay, Editor/Senior Policy Analyst.

11. Provisional Counts of Overdose Deaths Can Be Misleading

The federal Centers for Disease Control reported on December 21, 2017, that there had been a total of 63,600 deaths attributed to drug overdose in the US in 2016. Based on data available for analysis on Oct. 1, 2017, the CDC's provisional count of drug overdose deaths in the US for the 12-month period ending in December 2016 had been 71,135. The difference is attributed to data quality: provisional counts are by definition incomplete, which means they can be misleading.

The CDC compiles and publishes official data on annual causes of death in the United States. Demand for data on drug overdose deaths, and on drug overdoses generally, is so great that the CDC is now making raw data on these subjects available to the public. Those data are provisional, not final, and so can be misleading. Several caveats that must be understood before examining the numbers. According to the CDC:

"Provisional counts are often incomplete and causes of death may be pending investigation (see table Notes). Data quality measures, such as percent completeness in overall death reporting and percentage of deaths pending investigation, are included to aid interpretation of provisional data, because both data completeness and the percentage of records pending investigation are related to the accuracy of provisional counts (see Technical Notes). Provisional data are based on available records that meet certain data quality criteria at the time of analysis and may not include all deaths that occurred during a given time period. Therefore, they should not be considered comparable with final data and are subject to change. Reporting of specific drugs and drug classes varies by jurisdiction, and comparisons across selected states should not be made (see Technical Notes)."

Hedegaard H, Warner M, Miniño AM. Drug overdose deaths in the United States, 1999–2016. NCHS Data Brief, no 294. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2017.
"Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts," U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Atlanta, GA, based on data available for analysis on Oct. 1, 2017, last accessed Oct. 19, 2017 at

12. Changes in Synthetic Opioid Involvement in Overdose Deaths in the US and Involvement of Other Drugs in Combination

"Among the 42 249 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2016, 19,413 involved synthetic opioids, 17,087 involved prescription opioids, and 15,469 involved heroin. Synthetic opioid involvement in these deaths increased significantly from 3007 (14.3% of opioid-related deaths) in 2010 to 19,413 (45.9%) in 2016 (P for trend <.01). Significant increases in synthetic opioid involvement in overdose deaths involving prescription opioids, heroin, and all other illicit or psychotherapeutic drugs were found from 2010 through 2016 (Table).

"Among synthetic opioid–related overdose deaths in 2016, 79.7% involved another drug or alcohol. The most common co-involved substances were another opioid (47.9%), heroin (29.8%), cocaine (21.6%), prescription opioids (20.9%), benzodiazepines (17.0%), alcohol (11.1%), psychostimulants (5.4%), and antidepressants (5.2%) (Figure)."

Jones CM, Einstein EB, Compton WM. Changes in Synthetic Opioid Involvement in Drug Overdose Deaths in the United States, 2010-2016. JAMA. 2018;319(17):1819–1821. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.2844

13. Factors That May Skew Estimates of Overdose Deaths Attributed to Specific Drugs, Particularly Opioids

"First, factors related to death investigation might affect rate estimates involving specific drugs. At autopsy, the substances tested for, and circumstances under which tests are performed to determine which drugs are present, might vary by jurisdiction and over time. Second, the percentage of deaths with specific drugs identified on the death certificate varies by jurisdiction and over time. Nationally, 19% (in 2014) and 17% (in 2015) of drug overdose death certificates did not include the specific types of drugs involved. Additionally, the percentage of drug overdose deaths with specific drugs identified on the death certificate varies widely by state, ranging from 47.4% to 99%. Variations in reporting across states prevent comparison of rates between states. Third, improvements in testing and reporting of specific drugs might have contributed to some observed increases in opioid-involved death rates. Fourth, because heroin and morphine are metabolized similarly (9), some heroin deaths might have been misclassified as morphine deaths, resulting in underreporting of heroin deaths. Finally the state-specific analyses of opioid deaths are restricted to 28 states, limiting generalizability."

Rudd RA, Seth P, David F, Scholl L. Increases in Drug and Opioid-Involved Overdose Deaths — United States, 2010–2015. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2016;65:1445–1452. DOI:

14. Growth of Fentanyl Related Deaths in the US

"Preliminary estimates of U.S. drug overdose deaths exceeded 60,000 in 2016 and were partially driven by a fivefold increase in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids (excluding methadone), from 3,105 in 2013 to approximately 20,000 in 2016 (1,2). Illicitly manufactured fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50–100 times more potent than morphine, is primarily responsible for this rapid increase (3,4). In addition, fentanyl analogs such as acetylfentanyl, furanylfentanyl, and carfentanil are being detected increasingly in overdose deaths (5,6) and the illicit opioid drug supply (7). Carfentanil is estimated to be 10,000 times more potent than morphine (8). Estimates of the potency of acetylfentanyl and furanylfentanyl vary but suggest that they are less potent than fentanyl (9). Estimates of relative potency have some uncertainty because illicit fentanyl analog potency has not been evaluated in humans."

Julie K. O’Donnell, PhD; John Halpin, MD; Christine L. Mattson, PhD; Bruce A. Goldberger, PhD; R. Matthew Gladden, PhD. Deaths Involving Fentanyl, Fentanyl Analogs, and U-47700 — 10 States, July–December 2016. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Vol. 66. Centers for Disease Control. October 27, 2017.

15. Pain as a Public Health Problem

"Pain is a significant public health problem. Chronic pain alone affects approximately 100 million U.S. adults. Pain reduces quality of life, affects specific population groups disparately, costs society at least $560-635 billion annually (an amount equal to about $2,000 for everyone living in the United States), and can be appropriately addressed through population health-level interventions."

Institute of Medicine, "Relieving Pain in America: A Blueprint for Transforming Prevention, Care, Education, and Research" (Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 2011), p. 5.