Cookie policy: This site uses cookies (small files stored on your computer) to simplify and improve your experience of this website. Cookies are small text files stored on the device you are using to access this website. For more information please take a look at our terms and conditions. Some parts of the site may not work properly if you choose not to accept cookies.


Subscribe or Register

Existing user? Login



Synthetic opioids overtake prescription opioids as leading cause of US overdose deaths

Almost a third of overdose deaths caused by illicit and psychotherapeutic drugs involved synthetic opioids in 2016, compared with 7.8% in 2010.

Synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, were implicated in more overdose-related deaths in 2016 than prescription opioids in the United States.

Of 42,249 opioid-related deaths in 2016, 19,413 (45.9%) involved synthetic opioids, compared with 3,007 deaths in 2010. A total of 17,087 opioid-related deaths (40.4%) involved prescription opioids and a further 15,469 deaths (36.6%) involved heroin in 2016. 

The research showed that synthetic opioids were involved in almost a third (30.5%) of all overdose deaths involving illicit and psychotherapeutic drugs in 2016, compared with 7.8% in 2010.

“These findings underscore the rapidly increasing involvement of synthetic opioids in the drug overdose epidemic and in recent increases in overdose deaths involving illicit and psychotherapeutic drugs,” the authors, led by Christopher Jones of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in Rockwell, Maryland, wrote in JAMA[1] on 1 May 2018.

The United States is experiencing an opioid crisis that has been declared a national emergency by President Donald Trump. It is estimated that more than 800 people die every week in the United States from opioid misuse.

In recent years, illicit use of synthetic opioids, particularly fentanyl, has increased. Fentanyl, which is cheaper and stronger than heroin, is frequently taken alongside other drugs and alcohol, increasing the risk of overdose. It is also used as a cutting agent for cocaine and heroin.

The role of synthetic opioids in drug overdose deaths has only become prominent in the past few years. As recently as 2014, synthetic opioids were implicated in only 7.1% of drug overdose deaths. Between 2015 and 2016, the number of people dying from drug overdoses involving synthetic opioids more than doubled from 9,580 deaths to almost 20,000 deaths.

The researchers say the findings show greater awareness is needed among the general public and medical professionals as to the risks associated with synthetic opioids alongside comprehensive strategies and funding for preventing and treating opioid addiction.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2018.20204783

Readers' comments (1)

  • More Americans are dying of opioid overdoses than in car crashes today.

    The Surgeon General wants everyone to have access to naloxone. The FDA has advocated that it be made an over-the-counter drug, as other nations have already done.

    You can help by urging our lawmakers to change naloxone to OTC. Sign the petition at the White House website today!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

For commenting, please login or register as a user and agree to our Community Guidelines. You will be re-directed back to this page where you will have the ability to comment.

Recommended from Pharmaceutical Press

  • Drugs of Abuse

    Drugs of Abuse

    A concise, easy-to-read guide for healthcare professionals who encounter drug abuse.

    £38.00Buy now
  • Pharmaceutical Toxicology

    Pharmaceutical Toxicology

    Explains the methodology and requirements of pre-clinical safety assessments of new medicines. Includes registration requirements and pharmacovigilance.

    £40.00Buy now
  • Pathology and Therapeutics for Pharmacists

    Pathology and Therapeutics for Pharmacists

    An practical, integrated approach to the pathophysiological and pharmacotherapeutic principles underlying the treatment of disease.

    £54.00Buy now
  • Drugs and the Liver

    Drugs and the Liver

    Drugs and the Liver assists practitioners in making pragmatic choices for their patients. It enables you to assess liver function and covers the principles of drug use in liver disease.

    £38.00Buy now
  • Clarke's Analysis of Drugs and Poisons

    Clarke's Analysis of Drugs and Poisons

    Clarke's Analysis of Drugs and Poisons is the definitive reference source of analytical data for drugs and poisons.

    £535.00Buy now
  • Print
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Save
  • Print Friendly Version of this pagePrint Get a PDF version of this webpagePDF

Supplementary images

  • Opioid drugs

Newsletter Sign-up

Want to keep up with the latest news, comment and CPD articles in pharmacy and science? Subscribe to our free alerts.