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The Rise of Drug Deaths in America

This year, drug overdose deaths surpassed firearm deaths for the first time, making the issue of addiction and drug abuse an even greater concern for Americans.

The public is aware of the numbers associated with overdose deaths; however, big numbers like 50,000 overdose deaths and 20.5 million addicted Americans are hard to comprehend without context. We took a look at the rapid rise in overdose deaths and compared this data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s WONDER (Wide-ranging Online Data for Epidemiological Research) to show how drug deaths compare to other tragedies such as war, motor vehicle accidents and disease.

Fatal Drug Overdoses: the Un-American Dream

While certain causes of death – such as motor vehicle fatalities – experienced a decline from 2007 to 2011, drug overdoses continue to claim more and more lives every year. In fact, drug overdoses take more lives yearly than HIV and have since 2002. They’re accountable for more than Parkinson’s since 2003, alcohol-related deaths since 2005, firearms since 2013, and motor vehicle fatalities since 2014. Nearly half a million people in the U.S. died as a result of a drug overdose between 2000 and 2014.

What played a large part in this increase? Opioids. In 2014, over 60 percent of drug overdose-related deaths involved opioids, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, which was close to 30,000 individuals. This also established a gateway to heroin usage, due to its lower cost compared to diverted prescriptions, which saw related deaths more than triple in a four-year period. Left unchecked, who knows how high these numbers could continue to climb.

The High Costs of the War on Drug Deaths

As recently as 2012, the running total of fatal drug overdoses surpassed the total number of casualties suffered by the U.S. in World War II291,557. It only took four years, from 1999 to 2002, for drug overdose deaths to eclipse the number suffered by the U.S. in the Vietnam War. The total U.S. casualties during the Vietnam War (47,000) is now close to the number of drug overdose deaths seen yearly by Americans.

At its current pace, drug overdose deaths will surpass the total number of casualties across all major U.S. wars by 2021. Which means in just over 20 years, from 1999 to 2021, overdose deaths will have exceeded the total number of battle casualties suffered in over a 200-year span. Clearly, the biggest enemy still left to face in a globalized world is the obscured face of addiction sitting at our doorstep.

Costing Us More: War or Drugs and Alcohol?

Since 1999, more Americans have died as a result of prescription drug overdoses (219,000) than the number of casualties experienced during America’s bloodiest conflict, the American Civil War. This included the Battles of Shiloh, Antietam, Stones River, and Gettysburg. Now the battles are named fentanyl overdose, tramadol addiction, and oxycodone abuse.

Alcohol-related deaths from 1999 to 2015 claimed more than the combined deaths of the American Civil War, Vietnam War, and World War I. Excessive drinking is responsible for one in 10 deaths among working-age adults between 20 and 64 years of age.

These discouraging numbers indicate the need for improved access to treatment. Less than 20 percent of those needing treatment in 2014 actually received it. Around 4.2 million Americans out of the 22.5 million needing help were able to seek professional help.

Heroin on a Dangerous Path

If overdose deaths continue on a similar trajectory, what will the future look like? Heroin would end up claiming more yearly deaths than Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or pneumonia by 2024. It would only take until 2020 for the yearly deaths associated with heroin to rise above 50,000 a year – exceeding the total number of lives claimed by either Parkinson’s or pneumonia at this time.

Two years later in 2022, heroin deaths would be less than 5,000 short of 100,000 deaths yearly and would claim almost 20,000 more deaths annually than diabetes. It would be 2024 before heroin deaths would surpass Alzheimer’s forecasted death toll. While it is possible that heroin deaths may taper off with the current initiatives aimed at preventing addiction and efforts to ease access to treatment, these figures show how large of a problem heroin could become if left unchecked.

Changing the Face of Death

Heroin and its gateway opioid painkillers have experienced an unprecedented increase in lives claimed from 1995 to 2015. Heroin deaths have increased by more than 600 percent among both genders– around 500 percent for men and 1,000 percent for women. Opioid painkiller deaths have increased 575 percent – more than 475 percent for men and more than 850 percent for women. In fact, across the top five categories, women saw larger increases compared to men.

As the CDC points out, women are more likely to have chronic pain, requiring prescription pain management. They are also more likely to be prescribed a higher dosage and use them for longer periods of time than men. For every one female who dies as a result of a prescription painkiller overdose, 30 end up in the emergency room for misuse or abuse.

Taking The Fight to Addiction

With fatal drug overdoses continuing to rise as a leading cause of death for Americans there has never been a more critical moment to act.

Don’t allow yourself or anyone you know to become a statistic – or a part of the thousands of people who are claimed by a drug overdose each year. Seek help now. has all of the necessary resources to help you understand how to combat this often silent enemy before it’s too late.


All deaths related to unintentional drug overdoses, exposure to forces of nature, HIV, alcohol, firearms, intentional self-harm (suicide), cancer (neoplasms), Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, pneumonia, and transport accidents were exported from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention WONDER online database, accessed Jan. 19, 2017. All drug-related deaths were limited to deaths from unintentional causes.

All war-related deaths were acquired through the Department of Veterans Affairs Fact Sheet: America’s Wars. War-related deaths were limited to U.S. battle deaths.

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