The rate of drug overdose deaths involving the synthetic opioid fentanyl increased by 279% in the U.S. between 2016 and 2021, according to newly released data.
Overall, the rate increased from 5.7 deaths per 100,000 people in 2016 to 21.6 deaths per 100,000 people in 2021, according to the report, which was released Wednesday (May 3) by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics. In 2021, the fentanyl overdose death rates were highest among those 35 to 44 years old (43.5 per 100,000), followed by those 25 to 34 years old (40.8 per 100,000).
The new report pulled information from death certificates in the National Vital Statistics System, which compiles data on births and deaths in the U.S. In addition to overdose deaths involving fentanyl, the study authors compiled data on deaths involving methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin and oxycodone. Fatal overdoses involving more than one drug — for example, those involving both methamphetamine and fentanyl — are counted in the overall totals for each drug involved.
(Fentanyl is commonly mixed with other drugs, such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine, the CDC notes, so the opioid is often implicated in overdoses attributed to other substances. For example, in 2022, the New York State Department of Health reported an increase in the rate of methamphetamine-related fatal overdoses, but it noted that the trend was largely linked to an uptick in deaths involving methamphetamine and fentanyl, rather than meth alone.)
The new CDC analysis found that, across all races and ethnicities in the analysis, the 2021 rates of fatal overdoses involving fentanyl were higher than for any other drug. Similarly, in most geographic regions of the U.S., fentanyl accounted for the highest rates of fatal overdose in 2021.
However, in two regions — which include the states Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Wyoming, Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington — the death rates involving fentanyl and methamphetamine were similar.
In the five-year study period, the overall rate of overdose deaths involving methamphetamine "more than quadrupled," from 2.1 per 100,000 people in 2016 to 9.6 per 100,000 in 2021. The rate of deaths involving cocaine "more than doubled," from 3.5 per 100,000 in 2016 to 7.9 per 100,000 in 2021.
Over the same time period, the death rate from oxycodone decreased slightly. The rate of fatal overdose involving heroin also declined, but this decrease was not statistically significant, the report noted.
"We need to know exactly what people are dying from so we know what services they need to stay alive," Caleb Banta-Green, a research professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine's Addictions, Drug & Alcohol Institute who was not involved in the new report, told CNN.
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Nicoletta Lanese is the health channel editor at Live Science and was previously a news editor and staff writer at the site. She holds a graduate certificate in science communication from UC Santa Cruz and degrees in neuroscience and dance from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in The Scientist, Science News, the Mercury News, Mongabay and Stanford Medicine Magazine, among other outlets. Based in NYC, she also remains heavily involved in dance and performs in local choreographers' work.