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A class of synthetic drugs has replaced heroin in many major American drug markets, ushering in a more deadly phase of the opioid epidemic.
New numbers Thursday from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that drug overdoses killed more than 70,000 Americans in 2017, a record. Overdose deaths are higher than deaths from H.I.V., car crashes or gun violence at their peaks. The data also show that the increased deaths correspond strongly with the use of synthetic opioids known as fentanyls.
Since 2013, the number of overdose deaths associated with fentanyls and similar drugs has grown to more than 28,000, from 3,000. Deaths involving fentanyls increased more than 45 percent in 2017 alone.
“If we’re talking about counting the bodies, where they lie, and the cause of death, we’re talking about a fentanyls crisis,” said Jon Zibbell, a senior public health scientist at the research group RTI International.
The recent increases in drug overdose deaths have been so steep that they have contributed to reductions in the country’s life expectancy over the last three years, a pattern unprecedented since World War II. Life expectancy at birth has fallen by nearly four months, and drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for adults under 55.
“The idea that a developed wealthy nation like ours has declining life expectancy just doesn’t seem right,” said Robert Anderson, the chief of mortality statistics at the C.D.C., who helped prepare the reports. “If you look at the other wealthy countries of the world, they’re not seeing the same thing.”
In a separate report, the C.D.C. also documented a 3.7 percent increase in the suicide rate, another continuation of a recent trend. The increases were particularly concentrated in rural America, and among middle-aged women, though the suicide rate for men remains higher than that for women at every age.