The Problem

An Epidemic

The headlines tell of rising death tolls after a brief period when death rates had slowed. Economists studying the issue discuss the ever-rising economic costs. Medical professionals research how to best treat pain without over prescribing opioids. Legislatures debate new laws to address the issue.

In 2022, America’s opioid epidemic - which was declared in November 2011 but began a decade before - continues to leave in its wake grieving families, hundreds of thousands of people impacted by addiction and communities struggling to develop strategies to combat the issue. While the numbers don’t tell the entire story, they do provide context for understanding the scope of the epidemic and extent of the work that must be done to address it.

The Statistics:

  • Opioid-involved overdose deaths climbed from 21,088 in 2010 to 47,600 in 2017.
  • In 2018, as progress was made in combating the epidemic, the death toll dipped slightly with 46,802 deaths.
  • In 2019, death rates began to rise again with 49,860 Americans losing their lives to opioid overdoses (15.5 deaths per 100,000).
  • In 2020, the upward trend continued with 68,630 Americans dying from opioid overdoses, a rate of 21.4 deaths per 100,000 people
  • The increases in drug-related deaths occurred nationally, spanning age, sex, and racial/ethnic groups.
  • Fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic—financial difficulties, mass isolation, overwhelming levels of fear and anxiety regarding illness— was a contributing factor to this increase in opioid-related deaths.
  • Another factor contributing to the climbing death toll for drug related deaths is the significant increase in the number of opioid deaths that also involve a benzodiazepine, a legal anti-anxiety drug.
  • Benzodiazepines are as addictive and dangerous as opioids and the number of people taking those drugs is on the rise.
  • A mixture of opioids and benzos is the most common drug combination (90% in one study) in cases where an overdose death involved two or more drugs.
  • Only 10 percent of Americans with a substance use disorder get treatment.
  • In 2020, opioid overdoses killed 939 Colorado residents. That’s more than 78 people a month, or 18 people a week.