Synthetic opioids involved in more deaths than prescription opioids | Science News


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Synthetic opioids involved in more deaths than prescription opioids

Deadly, illicit drugs are hard to track

4:30pm, May 1, 2018

DEADLY DUOS  Eighty percent of synthetic opioid-related overdose deaths in 2016 were also tied to the simultaneous use of alcohol or another drug (such as another opioid, heroin or cocaine).

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As opioid-related deaths rise in the United States, so has the role of synthetic opioids — primarily illicit fentanyl, mixed into heroin or made into counterfeit pills (SN Online: 3/29/18). In 2016, synthetics surged past prescription opioids and were involved in 19,413 deaths, compared with 17,087 deaths involving prescription opioids, researchers report May 1 in JAMA. The study is based on data from the National Vital Statistic System’s record of all U.S. deaths.

“Synthetic opioids are much deadlier than prescription opioids,” says emergency physician Leana Wen, Health Commissioner of Baltimore, who was not involved in the study. Fentanyl, for example, is about 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. The illicit origins of many synthetic opioids make the public health response more difficult, she says. “We can track prescriptions; it’s much harder to track illegally trafficked drugs.”

Opioids rise

Synthetic opioids were involved in 14 percent of all opioid-related deaths in 2010, but then shot up to be part of 46 percent of those deaths in 2016.


C. Jones et al. Changes in synthetic opioid involvement in drug overdose deaths in the United States, 2010-2016. JAMA. Vol. 319, May 1, 2108, p. 1819. (doi:10.1001/jama.2018.2844)

Further Reading

L. Sanders. Opioids kill. Here’s how an overdose shuts down your body. Science News Online, March 29, 2018.

A. Cunningham. What hospitals can do to help keep excess opioids out of communities. Science News. Vol. 193, January 20, 2018, p. 8.

K. Travis. One in three U.S. adults takes opioids, and many misuse them. Science News. Vol. 192, September 2, 2017, p. 5.

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