A record 72,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2017. At least two-thirds of those deaths were linked to opioids, according to new preliminary estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Prescription opioid use is declining, but experts point out that the drugs are becoming deadlier. It’s one of the factors that most likely explains the bulk of the increased number of overdoses last year, according to Dr. Roger Crystal, CEO of Opiant Pharmaceuticals and inventor of Narcan, a life-saving antidote to opioid overdoses.
The Opiant CEO notes that many of these deaths are linked to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that was reportedly the cause of singer Demi Lovato’s near-death overdose in July.
“We think this long-acting opioid treatment has particular advantages,” Crystal told Yahoo Finance, “as we are now in the next phase of this opioid crisis, where the majority of deaths arise from fentanyl.”
He added: “It’s the strongest of the opioids, 50 times stronger than heroin, it’s also easier and cheaper to make than heroin, and we see it growing year on year.”
Opioids are often used to treat acute pain and as anesthesia during surgery, but they can be easily abused. Some people who abuse prescription opioids often move on to deadlier opioids like heroin and illegally produced fentanyl. Survey data show that 2.4 million people in the U.S. abuse opioids, according to a November 2017 paper from the White House.
In 2017, the sharpest increase among the 72,000 drug-overdose deaths was fentanyl, accounting for 30,000 deaths, according to the CDC. For his part, President Donald Trump has blamed China for the fentanyl abuse in the U.S., as has Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). However, Kaiser Health News reported that Trump’s trade war may make China less likely to cooperate with the U.S. to stem the flow of fentanyl into the U.S.
That means the economic costs of the epidemic could just keep growing. In November 2017, the White House estimated that in 2015, the economic cost of the opioid crisis was $504 billion, or 2.8% of GDP that year. That’s over six times the most recently estimated economic cost of the crisis.
Alexis Christoforous is an anchor and reporter for Yahoo Finance.