Record high drug overdoses ‘ravaging’ United States, physicians say

AMA cites need for treatments, naloxone, supportive policies.

Drug overdoses are “ravaging” the United States and the problem is getting worse, according to the American Medical Association (AMA).

There were an estimated 107,622 drug overdose deaths across the country in 2021, according to provisional figures from the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) in the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

That figure was an increase of almost 15% from the 93,655 deaths estimated in 2020. “The 2021 increase was half of what it was a year ago, when overdose deaths rose 20% from 2019 to 2020,” according to a CDC announcement of May 11.

Physicians respond

In response, AMA demanded lawmakers support policies that support evidence-based treatments that will help patients.

“We know the overdose epidemic is ravaging this country, and the National Center for Health Statistics tally of about 107,000 deaths in the past year confirms the problem is getting worse,” AMA Board of Trustees Chairman Bobby Mukkamala, MD, said in a press release.

“Behind the numbers is thousands of grieving families. We need to help patients and their families with medically proven approaches to addiction,” said Mukkamala, who also is chairman of AMA’s Substance Use and Pain Care Task Force. “The AMA again is asking state and federal policymakers to embrace steps that will save lives by ensuring evidence-based treatment and harm reduction to our patients.”

AMA recommends:

  • Decriminalizing fentanyl test strips
  • Removing the prescription status of naloxone and making it an over-the-counter drug
  • Holding insurers accountable for “repeated, willful violations of state and federal mental health and substance use disorder parity laws.”

“At this time next year, we hope that the treatment landscape has changed, and we again will not be shaking our heads about the damage caused by this epidemic,” Mukkamala said.

Fentanyl crisis

The new NCHS data show overdose deaths involving opioids increased from an estimated 70,029 in 2020 to 80,816 in 2021. Deaths attributed to synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, numbered 71,238 in 2021, up from 57,834 in 2020.

AMA’s “2021 Overdose Report” noted opioid prescriptions have declined 44.4% from 2011 to 2020, but overdose deaths have increased every year from 2012 to 2020.

Meanwhile, the National Institute on Drug Abuse this year publicized a study that found law enforcement seizures of pills with fentanyl exploded from the start of 2018 to the end of 2021.

“An increase in illicit pills containing fentanyl points to a new and increasingly dangerous period in the United States,” NIDA Director Nora Volkow, MD, said in a press release. “Pills are often taken or snorted by people who are more naïve to drug use, and who have lower tolerances. When a pill is contaminated with fentanyl, as is now often the case, poisoning can easily occur.”

Other drug dangers

In the latest CDC figures, overdose deaths from other drug types were:

  • Psychostimulants such as methamphetamine, 32,856 in 2021, up from 24,576 in 2020.
  • Cocaine, 24,538 in 2021, up from 19,927 in 2020.
  • Natural and semi-synthetic drugs, 13,503 in 2021, down from 13,722 in 2020.

The biggest percentage increase in overdose deaths in 2021 occurred in Alaska, where deaths were up 75.3%, while overdose deaths in Wyoming did not increase at all in 2021 and deaths in Hawaii declined 1.8% from the same point in 2020, according to CDC.

The figures are provisional and could change, according to CDC.