In a research letter published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers noted that overdose deaths from synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, surpassed prescription opioids and heroin as the leading cause of overdose deaths in the United States. There has been an increasing trend of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids being found in illicit supplies of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and other drugs. Utilizing data from the National Vital Statistics based on death certificates including information on all deaths in the US, Jones et al were able to examine overdose related deaths. While there has been an increasing trend in the number of opioid overdose deaths, previously these have been primarily related to prescription opioids. Of the 42,249 opioid related overdose deaths that occurred in 2016, Jones et al found that 19,413 involved synthetic opioids, while 17,087 involved prescription opioids, and another 15,469 involved heroin. Of the 19,413 deaths related to synthetic opioids, the majority (79.7%) involved another drug or alcohol, with the most common being another opioid. There are some limitations regarding the completeness of data, and the authors suggested that the increase may be due to an increase in testing for synthetic opioids. Still, this data paints a startling picture of the state of the opioid epidemic, showcasing a need to move beyond prescribing habits in order to reduce overdose deaths.
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.