Drug Overdoses Still Responsible for One-Third of All Accidental Deaths

Depressed paramedics after heavy night

If you were to open a recent copy of USA Today, you might have seen a headlining news item that read something like this:

“Life expectancy up for the first time in four years, while drug overdose deaths drop by 4%.”

That might seem like a cause for celebration, that overdose deaths dropped by four percent in 2018. However, I would caution anyone rejoicing or celebrating this change. A movement in the right direction is undoubtedly good, but the American people are far from having dug themselves out of the hole that is the 21st-century drug addiction epidemic. Overdoses may have dipped slightly from 2017’s death toll, but 2018 still saw four times as many overdose deaths as our country experienced in 1999.

Let’s frame that another way. The American people are celebrating a four percent reduction in overdose deaths. But it would have taken a 400 percent reduction in overdose deaths just to get us back to where we were before the turn of the century.

I think it might be a little too early to be celebrating.

The Real Scope of Addiction in America Today

According to the same article that is celebrating a four percent drop in drug overdoses, drugs still account for more than one-third of all accidental deaths in the United States. Needless to say, we are far from being out of the woods when it comes to the drug problem.

Addiction experts are also advising caution. They’re warning us not to celebrate the slight drop in overdose deaths. From Dr. Kathryn McHugh of Harvard University: “I think these numbers suggest that some positive news is starting to come out of the many efforts to try to stem the tide on overdoses. The new data need to be interpreted with the utmost caution. I don't think we can interpret this as a win based on one year. After all, more than 67,000 people still died from drug overdoses in 2018. That’s still a tremendously high number of fatalities.”

Other Types of Overdose are Now on the Rise

Though the overall rate of overdose deaths fell slightly in 2018, certain types of overdoses skyrocketed. For example, prescription painkillers are becoming more difficult for addicts to get ahold of easily, due in part to a nationwide effort to curb the prescribing of and the general availability of such drugs. As a result, addicts often turn to other drugs. When other drugs become more popular, overdoses related to those drugs go up. For example, from 2012 to 2018, the rate of overdose deaths involving cocaine more than tripled, and the rate of overdose deaths involving methamphetamine went up more than fivefold.

An addiction expert, Dr. Daniel Ciccarone, is cautioning the medical community and the general population. He's saying that we are now in the fourth stage of the opiate crisis, and that the recent upticks in cocaine and meth-related deaths are often connected to opiates. It’s not at all uncommon to find fentanyl mixed in with cocaine or meth, making fentanyl partially responsible for rising cocaine and meth-related deaths.

As for being in the fourth stage of the opiate epidemic, here’s how that pans out:

  • The first wave of the opiate crisis occurred in the late-1990s and the early-2000s. It involved an increase in the manufacture and prescribing of prescription painkillers.
  • In the mid-2000s, the second phase set in, the second phase being an increase in heroin addiction.
  • The third phase began in 2014 when synthetic opioids like fentanyl became widespread and lethal.
  • The fourth phase describes where we are at now. Deaths from prescription opiates may have stalled, but deaths from other drugs that have synthetic opioids in them are on the rise.

Another point to consider is that it is not at all unlikely that overdose statistics might have gone up in 2019. The research on drug deaths in 2019 hasn’t been completed yet, and there’s no guarantee that 2018’s four percent decrease is going to be an ongoing trend.

“There's a large amount of social, economic, spiritual despair in this country. And because we've under-appreciated that phenomena, we've under-appreciated that there's a demand side to problematic drug consumption.”

Dr. Ciccarone’s commentary on the matter is worth mentioning here. “We have to move away from this understanding that we're just going to treat it as a supply-side phenomenon. As, ‘Let's stop the opioid pills, let's stop the excess prescribing.’ There's a large amount of social, economic, spiritual despair in this country. And because we've under-appreciated that phenomena, we've under-appreciated that there's a demand-side to problematic drug consumption.”

There are roughly 20 million people in the U.S. who struggle with a drug problem, a drinking problem, or a combination of the two. And even though drug overdoses went down four percent in 2018, we still lost 67,367 people to drug-related deaths that year.

Getting Help for a Loved One Before it’s Too Late

Helping an addicted man

If you have a son, daughter, grandchild, sibling, spouse, parent, aunt, uncle, cousin, or friend who is struggling with addiction, now is not the time to read the news and think, “Ah, overdoses are on their way down, maybe this will mean ______’s addiction days are coming to an end.”

In the general statistics, it’s good that fewer opioids are being prescribed, but thinking this will mean an individual's problem is on the way out is not only foolish, but it could also be lethal if he or she switches to other drugs. If you know someone who is struggling with addiction, now is the time to make sure that they get help for their habit. Addiction is a life or death matter. Let's not forget, in 2018, about 184 people died from drug overdoses every day.

Narconon offers a thorough, holistic rehabilitation program to help people overcome the causes of addiction. Narconon assists its participants in addressing the reasons why a person began using drugs in the first place. Narconon also helps each person repair the damage they caused over the years spent addicted. Narconon even goes to the lengths of ensuring that every recovering addict learns valuable life skills that make living a life without drugs totally achievable.

Narconon utilizes intensive detoxification, as well as unique drug education to help recovering addicts address the physical, mental, behavioral, and personal aspects of addiction. Narconon is a fully comprehensive and one-of-a-kind program dedicated to giving recovering addicts a drug-free life. The success of the Narconon program is measured in the thousands of Narconon graduates who now live healthy, productive, and meaningful lives that are not tainted by drugs and alcohol.

If your loved one is struggling with addiction, make sure they get help today. Please don’t wait until it is too late.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.