No More Silence about Opioid and Heroin Deaths

Community forums begin to seek help from private, public entities as death rates rise

Opioid deaths have reached epidemic proportions in America. Today, more people die from drug overdoses than they do from car crashes.

During 2014, a total of 47,055 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States, representing a one-year increase of 6.5 percent. But putting that number in perspective is important: 33,000 people were fatally shot, but 21,000 of those were suicides. And 30,057 died in car crashes. 

Startling new data from the National Center for Health Statistics shows that opioid deaths increased significantly last year, up from 7.9 per 100,000 in 2013 to 9.0 per 100,000 in 2014, a 14 percent increase.

In 2014, opioids were involved in 28,647 deaths, or 61 percent of all drug overdose deaths; the rate of opioid overdoses has tripled since 2000, the CDC said. Deaths from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and tramadol increased a dramatic 79 percent from 2013-14, while heroin deaths increased 28 percent. Each statistic represents a real person who has lost his or her life to an opioid overdose.

“Our family lost a dear friend to heroin, a young man in his 20s,” a 54-year-old Massachusetts man told LifeZette. “He was bright, funny, and so very intelligent. He wasn’t at all what you might think of when you hear the word ‘addict.’”

What is an opioid, and why is the use of these drugs skyrocketing?

Any variety of compounds that bind to specific receptors in the central nervous system and have pain relieving effects are opioids. They include prescription medications such as oxycodone, and illicit substances such as heroin. Opioids can be made completely artificially, or from the organic compound opium.

“Some people start out using an opiate for legitimate pain relief, and then get hooked,” said Hilary Jacobs, vice president of Addiction Treatment Services at Lahey Health Behavioral Services in Burlington, Massachusetts.

“There’s a long history to the opiate epidemic in America. Pain is often called the ‘fifth vital sign,’ and starting about 10 years ago social policy put an emphasis on pain management with doctors and hospitals. They were observed and rated for how they treated pain.”

In testimony to the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control presinfo-opioidented in May 2014, Dr. Nora Volkow said, in part, “We must recognize and consider the special character of this phenomenon, for we are asked not only to confront the negative and growing impact of opioid abuse on health and mortality, but also to preserve the fundamental role played by prescription opioid pain relievers in healing and reducing human suffering.”

Drugs meant for healing in controlled settings are often a gateway drug instead.

“Data reveals that 79 percent of people who initiate heroin use have used pharmaceuticals first,” Jacobs told LifeZette. “They either received these through a prescription and used them to excess, or obtained them in other ways — on the street, or from people they knew.”

“Disturbingly,” she continued, “the majority of that 79 percent originally obtained the drugs from a friend or family member.”

One of the problems with opioids is their price point: They are extremely affordable.

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“Many legitimate prescriptions cost a lot more than heroin you can get off the street,” Jacobs said. “It has a decent price point, and it’s pure — if you are afraid of needles, you can snort it.”

In an effort to stem the tide of the opioid epidemic, on Dec. 10 the White House announced that National Drug Control Policy Director Michael Botticelli will be hosting a series of community forums around the country.

The first forum was held this week in Oklahoma. Other forums will occur in other states early next year and may include input from public health and safety officials as well as people directly affected by the current opioid epidemic.

Related: Single Dose of Danger

The private sector efforts the president has already announced include a commitment by over 450,000 health care providers to complete opioid prescriber training in the next two years.

info-opiod2There are also new treatments that work in an opioid overdose emergency, specifically the drug naloxone. Other drugs are in the works by pharmaceutical manufacturers and are set to be fast-tracked by the Food and Drug Administration, according to Jacobs.

“Naloxone works in a very effective, timely way; it’s an auto-injectable drug similar to an epi-pen that can bring someone virtually back from death after they overdose,” she said. “It can even be prescribed to someone who is likely to witness an overdose — say a mother who may have to inject her son, for example.”

In Madison, Wisconsin, the police department recently began carrying naloxone while on patrol and used it 30 times in the first 20 weeks they had the drug. In 20 of those instances, they saved the life of the individual who overdosed, according to

The Madison Police Department initially received a grant from naloxone’s manufacturer to acquire 600 doses. They have run into a problem, however: Those doses will begin expiring in February. The generic form of naloxone costs about $50 per dose — it would cost the department $30,000 without a grant.

The department has applied for another grant from the manufacturer.

The opioid death statistics are staggering, but those who have lost loved ones to the drugs say the human losses are incalculable.

“You would never have thought that this bright, sweet young man was an addict to talk to him, or that he would die,” said the Massachusetts man who lost a friend to heroin. “It is just so sad. Such a loss.”

meet the author

Deirdre Reilly is a senior editor for LifeZette.