Overdose Deaths Surpass 1 Million After Decades-Long Opioid Epidemic
In 2021, drug overdose deaths surpassed one million since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began collecting data in 1999. According to the CDC, nearly 841,000 deaths were reported from 1999 to 2019, and nearly 170,000 deaths were reported for 2020 and 2021 combined.
These numbers portray only the most recent losses in a decades-long opioid crisis afflicting American communities. Thousands of lawsuits have been brought against opioid makers and others responsible for the crisis. One recent $26 billion settlement from opioid manufacturer Johnson & Johnson and three key distributors will bring compensation for many affected communities.
Drug overdose deaths increased since the COVID-19 pandemic
Data from the CDC shows that deaths from drug overdose continued to rise in the last two years, an increase that coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, 91,799 deaths were reported—a 31% increase in deaths from 2019.
As of April 2021, over 100,000 deaths were reported—a 28.5% increase from the number of reported deaths at that same period in 2020.
People between ages 15-24 were most significantly affected in 2020, as overdose deaths increased by 49% in that year compared with 2019 numbers.
Which drugs are responsible for overdose deaths?
The CDC tracks data on overdoses related to four main categories of opioids:
- Synthetic opioids (such as methadone, tramadol, and fentanyl)
- Natural opioids (such as morphine and codeine)
- Semi-synthetic opioids (such as oxycodone and hydrocodone)
In 2020, overdoses related to non-methadone synthetic opioids (such as fentanyl) rose by 56% compared to 2019 rates. Cocaine-related overdoses also rose by 22% between 2019 and 2020.
Background on the opioid epidemic
While recent data paints a sobering picture of the overdose crisis, the opioid epidemic is not new to American communities. Since the late 1990s, opioids have been at the heart of a drug crisis spurred by the aggressive marketing of pharmaceutical companies, according to National Public Radio (NPR). Overdose deaths have continued to rise since that time, seeing the sharpest increases in 2013 and at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A state-level opioid lawsuit delivers $26 billion to affected communities
After years of attempts to hold pharmaceutical companies responsible—including manufacturers, dispensers, distributors—a landmark settlement will require Johnson & Johnson, McKesson Corp, AmerisourceBergen Corp, and Cardinal Health Inc to pay $26 billion to states across the country.
According to Reuters, the $26 billion provides compensation to fund opioid treatment centers and other community services. Many of these county- and state-based agencies have been drained by the decades-long crisis. At least 44 states are expected to receive funds.
The settlement also includes a plan to prevent future excesses in opioid distribution that exacerbated the crisis, according to lawyers involved in negotiations.
Lawsuits pending against pharmacy chains
In addition to thousands of lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors, other litigation is seeking to hold pharmacy chains accountable for their role in the crisis.
In a case brought by Lake and Trumbull Counties of Ohio, local government lawyers argue that oversight from Walgreens Boots Allliance Inc, CVS Health Corp, Giant Eagle Inc, and Walmart Inc worsened the extent of opioid prescription fulfillment (Reuters). Litigation against these pharmacy chains is still in process.