The number of people killed by the painkiller fentanyl doubled in just a single year, according to a recent report from the FDA and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Fentanyl overdose is believed to be responsible for the accidental death of singer-songwriter Prince in April 2016.
For the first time, the report used a more accurate method for calculating the individual drugs involved in overdose deaths. This method showed that in 2013, at least 1,905 people died from fentanyl overdose, representing six deaths per one million people.
Just one year later, the number killed by the drug was 4,200, or 13 deaths per one million people. That’s more than double the prior year’s numbers.
Individual drugs finally tracked
The new report sought to correct a deficiency in the way that the United States has historically tracked drug-related deaths. Traditionally, coroners and medical examiners place codes on death certificates to indicate what types of drugs were involved. But these codes indicate categories, not individual drugs. Thus, both oxycodone and morphine are noted by the code for “natural and semisynthetic opioid analgesics.”
For the new report, the researchers analyzed the text of death certificates issued between 2010 and 2014, including written comments. This allowed a comparison down to the level of specific drugs.
The researchers found that in 2010 and 2011, oxycodone was the most lethal drug in the United States. From 2012 to 2014, it was overtaken by heroin. Cocaine moved back and forth between second and third place throughout the study period.
Fentanyl was the 9th most common cause of drug-related death in 2013, but the following year — when fentanyl deaths doubled — it leaped up to 5th place.
Fentanyl deaths were not the only ones to dramatically increase. Deaths from heroin increased more than threefold from 3,020 in 2010 to 10,863 in 2014. Heroin was also involved in more than a third of cocaine-related deaths.
The study also revealed that 48 percent of death certificates that mentioned a specific drug mentioned more than one drug: 25 percent mentioned two, 12 percent mentioned three, six percent mentioned four and five percent mentioned five or more.
The researchers found that nearly all deaths related to the anti-anxiety drugs alprazolam or diazepam — 95 percent — involved another drug as well.
Painkillers kill more than pain
The new study rounds out the picture of the country’s worsening prescription drug abuse epidemic.
The researchers noted that in recent years, coroners and medical examiners have dramatically improved their practice of reporting specific drugs on death certificates. Thus, some of the increase in deaths may simply be due to better reporting. Not all, of it though. Another recent CDC report, using conventional death certificate codes, also found large increases in drug overdose deaths. In a single year from 2014 to 2015, heroin deaths increased by 20 percent, while deaths from “synthetic opioids other than methadone” (including fentanyl) increased by 72 percent. (RELATED: Find more news about Big Pharma’s toxic drugs at the Big Pharma News website)
And while the new study’s focus on individual drugs provides crucial data, it can also obscure part of the bigger picture. Heroin may be the top killer, but that’s only if you count all prescription opioids as separate drugs. If you look at prescription painkillers as a class, they kill far more people than heroin does.
In fact, an analysis of 168,900 autopsies conducted in Florida in 2007 found that prescription drugs killed three times as many people as all cocaine, heroin and all methamphetamines combined. A total of 989 people were killed by street drugs, compared with 2,328 killed by opioid painkillers and 743 killed by anti-anxiety drugs.
Notably, that analysis found not a single death from marijuana. Yet earlier this year, a scandal broke out when it was revealed that pharmaceutical company Insys — whose only product is a form of fentanyl — donated half a million dollars to defeat a ballot proposition that would have legalized marijuana in Arizona.
The irony was not lost on legalization advocates, who have long accused Big Pharma of seeking to prevent marijuana legalization in order to prevent competition from a far safer product.