Opioid Epidemic FACT SHEET

A Huge Problem


You have probably heard references in the media to the growing opioid epidemic that has taken shape in the US today. This fact sheet explores some of the lesser explored aspects of this growing domestic crisis and concludes with some important questions and implications we should be considering as the epidemic and its repercussions continue to ripple across American society.

  • From 2000 to 2015 more than half a million people died from drug overdoses.
  • Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, with 47,055 lethal drug overdoses in 2014. 
  • Between 2001 and 2014, the number of deaths from overdoses increased six fold. However, the deadliest year on record, so far, was 2016.

opioid epidemic

opioid epidemic

  • Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic.
  • 91 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.
  • In 2014, 18,893 overdose deaths were related to prescription opioid pain relievers, and 10,754 overdose deaths were related to heroin.
  • While there are other countries that have opioid problems, Americans purchase about 80% of the world’s supply of opioids and abuse them more than anyone else.

opioid epidemic

  • In 2016 opioid overdose deaths increased by 12% over the prior year to 52,404.
  • Deaths from opioid overdoses dwarfed the fatalities from car accidents, which was 37,757, and gun deaths, including homicides and suicides, which was 36,252. It is also more deadly than the AIDS epidemic was at its peak.


What Is An Opioid?


Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), codeine, morphine, and many others. These drugs are chemically related and interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the body and brain. (*National Institute on Drug Abuse)


Opioid overdoses result in high rates of death because of their effects on the brain and nervous system. They literally convince the brain to stop the body’s breathing when taken in too large a dosage.


Not Merely a Problem of Illegal Drugs


If your image of an opioid addict is a back alley user, you’re only half right. The problem goes much deeper than that. The opioid epidemic actually demonstrates a significant flaw in our health care system and the ethical and responsible conduct of doctors who prescribe opioids in large quantities.


opioid epidemic


  • Prescriptions written by doctors have nearly tripled since 1991, with 219 million being written by 2011
  • Prescription drug use is more prevalent than ever – with 34% of American adults taking at least one prescription drug, and 11.5% taking three or more prescribed medications.
  • The most common drugs involved in prescription overdose deaths include: hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin), oxymorphone (Opana), and methadone.
  • The majority of new heroin users (four out of five) are those who previously used opioid medication.
  • According to research, about 1 in 15 people who take non-medical prescription pain relievers will try heroin within 10 years.
  • Surprisingly, heroin is more accessible and cheaper than prescription opioids. While prescription painkillers can boast high prices that range from $60 to $100 a pill, a single dose of heroin can be purchased for as little as $10. 
  • The rate of heroin overdose deaths nearly quadrupled from 2000 to 2013. Deaths from heroin overdoses rose 23 percent from 2015 to 2016, totaling 12,989.

opioid epidemic


  • Deaths from synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, spiked by 73 percent to 9,580.
  • The most devastating drug of them all was prescription painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin. 17,536 people died from overdosing on them in 2016.
  • In 2012, physicians wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers.


Doctors and Dealers


  • Over a trillion dollars has been spent on the War on Drugs, originally launched in 1971, in efforts to go after manufacturers, traffickers, and distributors of narcotics. 
  • As of 2016, over 20 million Americans have a substance abuse problem, there are a record number of drug overdoses, and the drug cartels appear as powerful and deadly as they have ever been.
  • In 1996, the American Pain Society and the American Academy of Pain Management published a consensus stating that opioids were addictive to less than 1% of users so doctors could prescribe opioids for chronic pain. Also in the consensus, they said that there was little risk that people will become addicted and/or overdose.
  • Since 1999, the amount of prescription opioids sold in the U.S. nearly quadrupled, yet there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans report.
  • Deaths from prescription opioids—drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and methadone—have more than quadrupled since 1999.


As these numbers continue to skyrocket more and more families will be impacted either directly or indirectly by the opioid epidemic. The opioid epidemic is not a story about back alley deals and south American cartels. It is a story about a failing health system and a society increasingly looking to pills to answer their problems.


Additional Reading

Overdose Death Rates

Opioid Addiction Facts and Figures

Opioid Death Rates Rise in 2017

Understanding the Epidemic

10 Astonishing Facts About the Opioid Epidemic

10 Terrifying Facts About the Opioid Epidemic

Facts About Prescription Opioid Abuse

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