Opioid Deaths Skyrocket Even As Painkiller Prescriptions Decline


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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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Prescriptions for painkillers are declining across New York but opioid overdose deaths continue to climb as powerful synthetic narcotics like fentanyl take over.

New York had a rate of roughly 42.7 prescriptions per 100 people in 2016, a rate significantly lower than the national average and a decrease from previous years. Westchester and Rockland counties carried particularly low rates, each with roughly 35 prescriptions per 100 people. Despite the declines in prescribing, those counties lost 143 residents to opioid overdoses, up from 110 in 2015, reports lohud.

More than 1,000 residents of New York died from opioid-related causes in 2016, a new record for the state, all as doctors prescribed less pain pills.

Nationally, prescriptions peaked at a rate of 81 per 100 people in 2012. That rate fell to 66.5 prescriptions per 100 people in 2016, the lowest rate in 10 years. A shift towards heroin and the emergence of synthetic opioids like fentanyl, however, continue to drive overall opioid deaths to new highs.

Opioid overdose made up a staggering 66 percent of all drug overdose deaths in 2016, killing 42,249 people in 2016, surpassing the annual number of lives lost to breast cancer. Deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl, a painkiller roughly 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, experienced a particularly dramatic increase, more than doubling from 9,580 lives in 2015 to 19,413 lives last year.

Officials say the epidemic is contributing to declining life expectancy in the U.S. Life expectancy dropped for the second consecutive year in 2016 for the first time since an outbreak of influenza in 1962 and 1963.

Addiction experts fear the death toll is likely higher than the official statistics shows, pointing to research suggesting federal data may be undercounting opioid deaths by as much as 20 percent.

“It’s even worse than it looks,” Keith Humphreys, an addiction specialist at Stanford University, told The Washington Post in December. “We could easily be at 50,000 opioid deaths last year. This means that even if you ignored deaths from all other drugs, the opioid epidemic alone is deadlier than the AIDS epidemic at its peak.”

President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a “public health emergency” Oct. 26, giving states hit hard by opioid addiction flexibility on how they direct federal resources to combat rising drug deaths.

Nationally, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of accidental death for Americans under age 50, killing 63,600 people in 2016.

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