U.S. Overdose Deaths Reach Record High

A record 72,300 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2017, a 10 percent increase from the previous year, new preliminary government estimates show.

The figures, from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indicate a spike in overdose deaths from synthetic opioids and a decline in deaths from heroin, prescription opioid pills and methadone.

The death toll is higher than the peak yearly death totals from HIV, car crashes or gun deaths, according to The New York Times reported Wednesday.

"Because it's a drug epidemic, as opposed to an infectious disease epidemic like Zika, the response is slower," Dan Ciccarone, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told The Times.

"Because of the forces of stigma, the population is reluctant to seek care. I wouldn't expect a rapid downturn; I would expect a slow, smooth downturn," said Ciccarone, who studies heroin markets.

A 2016 federal government phone survey suggested that around 2.1 million Americans had opioid use disorders. However, not all drug users have telephones and some respondents may not mention their drug use. The actual number could be as high as 4 million, Ciccarone said.

The number of opioid users has been rising "in most places, but not at this exponential rate," Brandon Marshall, an associate professor of epidemiology at Brown University School of Public Health, told the newspaper. "The dominant factor is the changing drug supply."

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