By Sy Mukherjee
August 15, 2018

The latest Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates on U.S. drug overdoses are grim: A record 71,568 Americans are projected to have died of drug overdoses in 2017, according to the initial CDC estimates. That presents a 6.6% national increase in overdose deaths over 2016 and an all-time historical record.

For context, the nearly 72,000 overdose deaths (spurred by the ongoing opioid painkiller addiction epidemic, including increased use of potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl) outpaced fatalities from suicide, or from influenza and pneumonia, which claimed about 44,000 and 57,000 lives, respectively, in 2016. It nearly rivaled the approximately 79,500 people who die from diabetes-related complication each year in the U.S., which is the 7th leading cause of death.

Nearly 150,000 Americans die each year from accidents such as car crashes, injuries, or accidental overdoses. If the CDC’s latest figures are on the mark, that means drug overdoses could account for nearly half of those accidental deaths.

As tends to happen with public health epidemics, overdoses have an outsize effect in certain regions. For instance, the biggest spike in fatalities by percentage occurred in Nebraska, North Carolina, New Jersey, Indiana, and West Virginia (33.3%, 22.5%, 21.1%, 15.1%, and 11.2% rises, respectively). But areas like Wyoming, Utah, and Oklahoma experienced declines of 9.2% to 33%.

More populated regions like Mississippi and, notably, Massachusetts, saw modest declines in overdoses. New England, the South, and Appalachia have been particularly hard-hit by the opioid epidemic.

Certain opioids have been singled out for their abuse potential and ability to kill even those who aren’t trying to get high. For instance, fentanyl overdoses reportedly accounted for nearly half of 2016’s overdose deaths, according to the American Medical Association (AMA).

Insurers, physicians, and pharmacy chains including Cigna and Walgreens have launched new efforts to try and crack down on excess opioid use, as has the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But, underscoring just how complicated the issue is, certain pain patients have lamented that it’s become more difficult to obtain the drugs that they legitimately need to make life bearable in the wake of the anti-opioid backlash.

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