Synthetic opioids overtake prescription opioids as leading cause of US overdose deaths

Almost a third of overdose deaths caused by illicit and psychotherapeutic drugs involved synthetic opioids in 2016, compared with 7.8% in 2010.

Painkiller tablets coming out of a bottle

Synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, were implicated in more overdose-related deaths in 2016 than prescription opioids in the United States.

Of 42,249 opioid-related deaths in 2016, 19,413 (45.9%) involved synthetic opioids, compared with 3,007 deaths in 2010. A total of 17,087 opioid-related deaths (40.4%) involved prescription opioids and a further 15,469 deaths (36.6%) involved heroin in 2016. 

The research showed that synthetic opioids were involved in almost a third (30.5%) of all overdose deaths involving illicit and psychotherapeutic drugs in 2016, compared with 7.8% in 2010.

“These findings underscore the rapidly increasing involvement of synthetic opioids in the drug overdose epidemic and in recent increases in overdose deaths involving illicit and psychotherapeutic drugs,” the authors, led by Christopher Jones of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in Rockwell, Maryland, wrote in JAMA
 on 1 May 2018.

The United States is experiencing an opioid crisis that has been declared a national emergency by President Donald Trump. It is estimated that more than 800 people die every week in the United States from opioid misuse.

In recent years, illicit use of synthetic opioids, particularly fentanyl, has increased. Fentanyl, which is cheaper and stronger than heroin, is frequently taken alongside other drugs and alcohol, increasing the risk of overdose. It is also used as a cutting agent for cocaine and heroin.

The role of synthetic opioids in drug overdose deaths has only become prominent in the past few years. As recently as 2014, synthetic opioids were implicated in only 7.1% of drug overdose deaths. Between 2015 and 2016, the number of people dying from drug overdoses involving synthetic opioids more than doubled from 9,580 deaths to almost 20,000 deaths.

The researchers say the findings show greater awareness is needed among the general public and medical professionals as to the risks associated with synthetic opioids alongside comprehensive strategies and funding for preventing and treating opioid addiction.


[1] Jones CM, Einstein EB & Compton WM. Changes in synthetic opioid involvement in drug overdose deaths in the United States, 2010–2016. JAMA 2018;319:1819–1821. doi: 10.1001/jama.2018.2844

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, May 2018, Vol 300, No 7913;300(7913):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2018.20204783

You may also be interested in