Why Opioid Overdose Statistics Vary
If you are confused about the statistics on the opioid epidemic, you are not alone. A review of recent news releases shows that the figures cited for deaths due to prescription drug overdose do not agree. The difference is largely explained by variation in the methods used to collect or categorize the raw data. Here is a brief discussion of the statistics for prescription opioid overdose deaths in 2015 and how each was determined:
• The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) stated that 17,536 Americans died in 2015 from overdoses involving prescription opioids, a 4% increase from the year before.
The ONDCP calculated this total by including any death that involved opium, natural and semisynthetic opioids, methadone, and unspecified narcotics (opioids). In the ONDCP’s analysis, deaths involving illicit opioids are included in the same category as prescription drug deaths.
• The CDC states that more than 12,700 deaths in 2015 involving “natural opioids (including morphine and codeine) and semisynthetic opioids (including commonly prescribed pain medications such as oxycodone and hydrocodone), a 2.6% increase from the year before.
The CDC based this figure on data from only 28 states and mostly used death certificate codes for much of its data. However, these codes reflect the conditions that existed at the time of death, not necessarily the cause of death (meaning that end-of-life pain relief for a cancer patient would be included in this figure). Another flaw is the variability in how the death certificates are filled out. Nearly 1 out of 5 death certificates in the U.S. do not include any drug data.
• The CDC Injury Center cites the number of deaths involving prescription opioids as 15,281 in 2015.
This CDC-related organization has begun categorizing deaths involving synthetic opioids (other than methadone) separately from deaths involving other prescription opioids (natural, semisynthetic, methadone). This decision was made specifically to separate out the recent surge of fentanyl-related deaths.
One place the ONDCP and the CDC agree is that overdose deaths from illegal opioids such as heroin and fentanyl are skyrocketing. They also agree that deaths involving opioid painkillers appear to be stabilizing.
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