A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has documented the first significant decline in the number of overdose deaths caused by prescription opioid painkillers.
From 2010 to 2012, the number of deaths in 28 states caused by opioids declined from 10,427 to 9,869 deaths – a drop of 5.4 percent – according to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Seven states had decreases in opioid deaths rates, five states had increases, and sixteen states had no change.
Despite the encouraging results about opioid deaths, the CDC issued a press release that focused instead on a sharp increase in the number of heroin deaths, which the agency blamed on the overprescribing of opioid pain medication.
“Reducing inappropriate opioid prescribing remains a crucial public health strategy to address both prescription opioid and heroin overdoses,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, in the press release. “Addressing prescription opioid abuse by changing prescribing is likely to prevent heroin use in the long term.”
From 2010 to 2012, the number of heroin deaths in the same 28 states doubled from 1,779 to 3,635 deaths. The agency blamed the rising number of heroin deaths on “widespread prescription opioid exposure and increasing rates of opioid addiction.”
“While the majority of prescription opioid users do not become heroin users, previous research found that approximately 3 out of 4 new heroin users report having abused prescription opioids prior to using heroin,” the agency said. “This relationship between prescription opioid abuse and heroin is not surprising; heroin is an opioid, and both drugs act on the same receptors in the brain to produce similar effects. Heroin often costs less than prescription opioids and is increasingly available.”
“This study is another reminder of the seriousness of the prescription opioid overdose epidemic and the connection to heroin overdoses,” said Grant Baldwin, PhD, Director of the CDC’s Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention.
A recent study by Ameritox, one of the nation’s largest drug screening companies, detected heroin in 1.3% of the urine samples from over 170,000 chronic pain patients. That compares to 0.3% in the general population that use heroin.
The CDC admitted there are some significant limitations in the overdose data collected from the 28 states. One in five (22%) of the death certificates studied did not identify the drugs involved. Some heroin deaths may have also been misclassified as opioid deaths.
“The findings in this report indicate a growing problem with heroin overdoses superimposed on a continuing problem with OPR (opioid pain reliever) overdoses. Increasing use of heroin is especially concerning because it might represent increasing injection drug use,” the agency said.
“The small decline in OPR overdose mortality is encouraging given its steep increase during 1999–2010, but efforts to address opioid abuse need to continue to further reduce overdose mortality and avoid further enlarging the number of OPR users who might use heroin when it is available.”