The cost of America’s opioid epidemic just keeps rising, with new research showing that overdose deaths among teens and young adults are soaring.
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The death rate from drug overdoses rose from eight in every 100,000 people aged 15 to 24 in 2006 to nearly 10 per 100,000 in 2015, researchers found.
“Drug poisoning deaths affect families, communities, and society at large,” said lead researcher Bina Ali, an associate research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, in Beltsville, Maryland.
Among those aged 15 to 24, death rates from prescription painkillers and opioids including heroin increased nearly 5% on average each year from 2006 to 2015, but jumped by more than 15% each year from 2013 to 2015, Ali noted.
This increase reflects the ease with which teens and young adults can get prescription opioids and illegal drugs like heroin and fentanyl. Once hooked on prescription drugs like Vicodin or OxyContin, it’s a small step to move on to illicit drugs as prescription opioids become harder to get, the study authors explained.
When young people switch to heroin, which is often laced with other dangerously powerful drugs such as the synthetic opioid fentanyl, the odds of an unintentional overdose rise sharply. And because these drug combinations are so potent, they increase the risk of dying.
“The findings of this study are heartbreaking, yet not surprising,” said Lindsey Vuolo, director of health law and policy at the Center on Addiction in New York City.
“The opioid crisis has claimed the lives of too many young people, and we need to be doing much more to protect adolescents and young adults from a disease that is preventable and treatable,” Vuolo said.
For the study, Ali and her colleagues analyzed mortality data from the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics from 2006 through 2015.
The investigators also looked at the rising cost to society linked to overdose deaths. Costs included ambulance services, hospital stays, and autopsies.
In addition, they measured the loss of earnings over a normal life span and the value of intangibles, such as quality of life and pain and suffering.
The findings showed that drug-related death rates were higher for whites (nearly 12 for every 100,000) and for American Indian/Alaska Natives (10 per 100,000), compared with blacks (three per 100,000), Asian/Pacific Islanders (two per 100,000), and Hispanics (four per 100,000).
Overdose death rates also varied by state. For example, the rate in West Virginia was about five times higher than the rate in Nebraska (15 versus three per 100,000 people).
The largest increase in death rates was in New York, which saw increases of 9% a year. Death rates in Ohio, Massachusetts, and New Jersey were also in this range, according to the report.
The researchers estimated the one-year cost of overdose deaths among teen and young adults in 2015 at $27 million in medical costs, nearly $9 billion in work loss costs, and almost $27 billion for quality-of-life loss.
“These costs cannot account for the incalculable devastation and heartbreak for families that lose a child to this disease,” Vuolo said. “It is critical to help families that are supporting young loved ones with addiction.”
Julie Gaither, an instructor in the department of pediatrics at the Yale School of Medicine, said it’s key to understanding what state policies and prescribing practices are protecting young people and “conversely, what measures are exacerbating the problem for this vulnerable age group.”
To help curb the opioid epidemic and the deaths it causes, strategies are needed, such as prescription drug-monitoring programs, prescription drug disposal, naloxone distribution programs, and medication-assisted treatment, Ali said.
“These strategies may be more effective if they target subgroups that have consistently higher drug-poisoning death rates and those that are showing increases over time,” Ali added.
Vuolo said prevention strategies are underfunded and underutilized, and the vast majority of adolescents and young adults do not receive effective treatment. “It would be far more cost-effective to invest in effective prevention and treatment strategies,” she said.
The report was published April 25 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.