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Deadly overdoses fell in US for first time in five years, new estimates show

Emily Alpert Reyes, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Health & Fitness

Deaths from drug overdoses fell last year in the United States as fewer people lost their lives to fentanyl and other opioids, marking the first time the death toll had dropped in five years, according to newly released estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Federal officials said the numbers show a 3% decline in the estimated overdose fatalities between 2022 and 2023. That downturn equates to nearly 3,500 fewer deaths across the U.S. than the year before.

The new figures are tentative and could still be updated. Even a slight decline could be a balm for a country where drug overdoses have taken a devastating toll: In one survey, more than 40% of adults said they knew someone who lost their life to a drug overdose, according to a Rand study published this year.

“I’m thrilled that there wasn’t an increase, but we’re still talking about 107,000 people dying, which is completely unacceptable,” said Beau Kilmer, co-director of the Rand Drug Policy Research Center. Kilmer said better data on drug use are needed to untangle exactly what is driving the changes.

Community groups and health officials grappling with the devastating toll of fentanyl have pushed to equip more people with naloxone, a medicine that can stop opioid overdoses and is commonly sold as a nasal spray under the brand name Narcan. Los Angeles County officials, for instance, credited an effort to hand out Narcan on the streets when they announced last week that overdose deaths had stopped surging among homeless people. To try to reduce the deadly risks, people who use drugs have also turned to test strips to detect fentanyl and avoided using drugs by themselves, among other strategies.

Health researchers have also noted that broader changes in the population could be affecting the numbers: Many heroin users who switched to fentanyl have died, and if fewer people are newly turning to fentanyl use, that could mean fewer people are now at risk, said Dr. Daniel Ciccarone, a UCSF addiction medicine professor.

 

“Based on utterly anecdotal, street-level observations, I’ll say there aren’t a lot of newbies,” Ciccarone said. “We’re looking for them, but we don’t see them. We don’t see the 22-year-old who says, ‘Hey, I want to use fentanyl.’ This is an aging cohort.”

Even as U.S. deaths linked to fentanyl and other opioids dropped between 2022 and 2023, the country saw an uptick in deaths tied to stimulants such as methamphetamine and cocaine, according to the new estimates. Drug researchers said that in recent years, many deaths involving meth have also involved opioids.

And not all parts of the country saw an overall drop in fatal overdoses. “In the East Coast and in the Midwest, we are seeing declines, but on the West Coast — particularly in the upper Northwest — we’re still seeing increases,” said Farida Ahmad, a health scientist at the National Center for Health Statistics.

The federal figures show that in California, the estimated number of overdose deaths continued to rise in 2023 compared with 2022, increasing by 4.1%. In Oregon and Washington, increases were significantly steeper — roughly 30% and 27% respectively.

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