Opioid overdose deaths surge among African Americans: 5 things to know

As heroin and fentanyl have contributed to a larger number of opioid-related deaths, the proportion of African-Americans dying from opioid overdoses has increased, according to data released by the CDC in December.

In 2016, black Americans died of drug overdoses at the same the rate of white Americans in 2014, which was then considered worthy of distinction as a public health crisis, according to a report from Vox.

Here are five things to know.

1. Although the opioid epidemic continues to have an outsized effect on white communities, with a higher percentage of whites dying of opioid-related overdoses, the number of black Americans dying from drug overdoses has steadily risen in the last few years. In 2016, drug deaths among black Americans in urban counties soared by 41 percent. This outpaced the rise in drug overdose deaths among all other racial demographics. Drug death rates among whites in the same counties rose by 21 percent according to The New York Times.

2. The opioid epidemic began in the 1990s as the medical community aimed to address the burden of pain among patients. Drugmakers and distributors then engaged in what many have characterized as deceptive marketing campaigns to push the prescription of opioids to treat many types of pain. This resulted in the diversion and misuse of pills, which subsequently contributed to rising rates of overdose deaths around the country. These overdoses where largely experienced by whites as they had more access to these medications, according to Vox.

3. One potential reason the opioid epidemic hit white America so hard is that physicians are less inclined to prescribe black people pain medication because some physicians worry these patients are more likely to illegally distribute the drugs or develop an addiction, according previously conducted research cited by Vox.

4. As fentanyl — a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin — is increasingly introduced to both the heroin and cocaine supply, overdoses involving these drugs have become more fatal. This has likely contributed to the rise in overdose deaths among African Americans, according to the Times.

5. Andrew Kolodny, MD, director of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing and co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University's Heller School in Waltham, Mass., told the Times many of the African-Americans who died of heroin overdoses in 2016 were older men who became addicted in the 1970s, which suggests the current opioid crisis will affect American life for decades to come as the number of people in the U.S. with opioid addiction has surged.

"Despite beating the odds for the past 40 to 50 years, they're dying because the heroin supply has never been so dangerous — increasingly it's got fentanyl in it or it's just fentanyl sold as heroin," said Dr. Kolodny. "Forty, 50 years later we're still paying a price. What this means is for our current epidemic, we're going to be paying a very heavy human and economic price for the rest of our lives."

More articles on opioids: 
North Carolina AG accuses Insys of illegally pushing fentanyl, files lawsuit 
Pennsylvania's top opioid prescriber indicted on charges related to 5 patient deaths: 3 things to know 
Allegheny, UPMC receive millions in grants to address Pennsylvania opioid crisis: 3 things to know

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