May 15, 2024 - Health

Overdose deaths in 2023 fell for the first time since the pandemic

A line chart that visualizes the predicted 12-month total of U.S. drug overdose deaths from January 2015 to December 2023. The data shows a steady increase from 48,126 deaths in January 2015 to a peak of 113,103 in May 2023. The chart highlights a significant surge in deaths from 2020 onwards.
Data: CDC; Chart: Axios Visuals

Fatal drug overdoses in the United States declined last year for the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic, new preliminary federal data show.

The big picture: It's a rare glimmer of positive news amid a drug epidemic that's gripped the nation for over two decades and still continues to kill over 100,000 people each year.

By the numbers: Drug overdose deaths fell 3% from 111,029 in 2022 to 107,543 last year, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • After rising sharply during the pandemic's first two years, overdose deaths had appeared to plateau in 2022.
  • The number of deaths involving fentanyl and other potent synthetic opioids, which account for the vast majority of fatal overdoses, declined from 76,226 in 2022 to 74,702 last year.
  • But deaths from cocaine and stimulants like methamphetamine continued to tick up, as they are increasingly mixed with fentanyl, creating a new wave in the evolving drug epidemic. About 1 in 3 fatal overdoses last year involved stimulants, while just over 1 in 4 involved cocaine.

Some states had dramatic annual decreases in overdose deaths, with drops of more than 15% recorded in Indiana, Nebraska, Kansas and Maine.

  • While fentanyl took longer to move to the western part of the country, those states are now seeing some of the sharpest year-over-year increases in overdose deaths. Alaska, Oregon and Washington state all had increases of at least 27%.

What they're saying: The overall decline in drug deaths is "heartening news" that demonstrates progress against the epidemic, though overdoses are still killing people at "staggering numbers," CDC chief medical officer Deb Houry said in a statement.

  • "This progress over the last 12 months should make us want to reinvigorate our efforts knowing that our strategies are making a difference," she added.

Flashback: Annual drug overdose deaths last declined in 2018, which was the first time they had decreased since the 1990s as prescription painkillers sparked an addiction crisis.

  • At the time, when drugs were killing around 70,000 people each year, it was seen as a possible turning point in the epidemic.
  • But deaths would skyrocket over the next few years as illicit fentanyl flooded the country and the pandemic's stress and isolation exacerbated the drug problem.

Go deeper: America's drug overdose crisis has profound ripple effects

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