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.”
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.