Drug Overdose Deaths Rising Exponentially (01 October 2018)

Graphs and maps showing the changing overdose mortality rate

Published 01 October 2018

In the September 20 issue of Science, PDHL researchers revealed a paradox in drug overdose deaths that challenges the prevailing perception of the epidemic. They revealed that the overall death rates from drug overdoses in the U.S. have been on an exponential growth curve for nearly 40 years despite all the rises and falls of deaths due to individual drugs. This trajectory began at least 15 years before the mid-1990s surge in opioid prescribing, suggesting that overdose death rates may continue along this same historical growth trajectory for years to come. When use of one drug has declined, another has moved in to fill the void. "This smooth, exponential growth pattern caught us by surprise," Donald Burke, dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, and the study's senior author, said in an interview with ABC news. After analyzing data from nearly 600,000 deaths attributed to drug overdose from the National Vital Statistics System, the researchers saw that the overdoses followed an almost perfectly exponential trajectory over the 38-year period from when the reporting first began in 1979 to 2016. The death rate due to overdoses doubled approximately every 9 years – by 2016 it was up to one death every 8 minutes.

The complexity behind the trend means that slowing or stopping the curve will require deeper changes than just cracking down on one substance or another, the authors said. "The dynamic is very complicated," stated Hawre Jalal, assistant professor of health policy and management, and lead author of the analysis, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. "It's unlikely it will respond to a specific drug or age category. It will need a much, much more comprehensive intervention."