Opioid Crisis Fast Facts | CNN



CNN
 — 

Here’s a look at the opioid crisis.

Experts say the United States is in the throes of an opioid epidemic. An estimated 9.2 million Americans aged 12 and older misused opioids in 2021, including 8.7 million prescription pain reliever abusers and 1.1 million heroin users.

Opioids are drugs formulated to replicate the pain-reducing properties of opium. Prescription painkillers like morphine, oxycodone and hydrocodone are opioids. Illegal drugs like heroin and illicitly made fentanyl are also opioids. The word “opioid” is derived from the word “opium.”

Nearly 110,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2022, and more than two-thirds of those deaths involved a synthetic opioid.

Overdose deaths have been on the rise for years in the United States, but surged amid the Covid-19 pandemic: Annual deaths were nearly 50% higher in 2021 than in 2019, CDC data shows.

Prescription opioid volumes peaked in 2011, with the equivalent of 240 billion milligrams of morphine prescribed, according to the market research firm, IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science.

Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee had the highest opioid dispensing rates in 2020.

Opioids such as morphine and codeine are naturally derived from opium poppy plants more commonly grown in Asia, Central America and South America. Heroin is an illegal drug synthesized from morphine.

Hydrocodone and oxycodone are semi-synthetic opioids, manufactured in labs with natural and synthetic ingredients.

Fentanyl is a fully synthetic opioid, originally developed as a powerful anesthetic for surgery. It is also administered to alleviate severe pain associated with terminal illnesses like cancer. The drug is up to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Just a small dose can be deadly. Illicitly produced fentanyl has been a driving factor in the number of overdose deaths in recent years.

Methadone is another fully synthetic opioid. It is commonly dispensed to recovering heroin addicts to relieve the symptoms of withdrawal.

Opioids bind to receptors in the brain and spinal cord, disrupting pain signals. They also activate the reward areas of the brain by releasing the hormone dopamine, creating a feeling of euphoria or a “high.”

Opioid use disorder is the clinical term for opioid addiction or abuse.

People who become dependent on opioids may experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop using the medication. Dependence is often coupled with tolerance, meaning that users need to take increasingly larger doses for the same effect.

A drug called naloxone, available as an injection or a nasal spray, is used as a treatment for overdoses. It blocks or reverses the effects of opioids and is often carried by first responders.

More data on overdose deaths

The 21st Century Cures Act, passed in 2016, allocated $1 billion over two years in opioid crisis grants to states, providing funding for expanded treatment and prevention programs. In April 2017, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price announced the distribution of the first round of $485 million in grants to all 50 states and US territories.

In August 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the launch of an Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit within the Department of Justice. The unit’s mission is to prosecute individuals who commit opioid-related health care fraud. The DOJ is also appointing US attorneys who will specialize in opioid health care fraud cases as part of a three-year pilot program in 12 jurisdictions nationwide.

On October 24, 2018, President Donald Trump signed opioid legislation into law. The SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act includes provisions aimed at promoting research to find new drugs for pain management that will not be addictive. It also expands access to treatment for substance use disorders for Medicaid patients.

State legislatures have also introduced measures to regulate pain clinics and limit the quantity of opioids that doctors can dispense.

1861-1865 – During the Civil War, medics use morphine as a battlefield anesthetic. Many soldiers become dependent on the drug.

1898 – Heroin is first produced commercially by the Bayer Company. At the time, heroin is believed to be less habit-forming than morphine, so it is dispensed to individuals who are addicted to morphine.

1914 – Congress passes the Harrison Narcotics Act, which requires that doctors write prescriptions for narcotic drugs like opioids and cocaine. Importers, manufacturers and distributors of narcotics must register with the Treasury Department and pay taxes on products

1924 – The Anti-Heroin Act bans the production and sale of heroin in the United States.

1970 – The Controlled Substances Act becomes law. It creates groupings (or schedules) of drugs based on the potential for abuse. Heroin is a Schedule I drug while morphine, fentanyl, oxycodone (Percocet) and methadone are Schedule II. Hydrocodone (Vicodin) is originally a Schedule III medication. It is later recategorized as a Schedule II drug.

January 10, 1980 – A letter titled “Addiction Rare in Patients Treated with Narcotics” is published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It looks at incidences of painkiller addiction in a very specific population of hospitalized patients who were closely monitored. It becomes widely cited as proof that narcotics are a safe treatment for chronic pain.

1995 – OxyContin, a long-acting version of oxycodone that slowly releases the drug over 12 hours, is introduced and aggressively marketed as a safer pain pill by manufacturer, Purdue Pharma.

May 10, 2007 – Purdue Pharma pleads guilty for misleadingly advertising OxyContin as safer and less addictive than other opioids. The company and three executives are charged with “misleading and defrauding physicians and consumers.” Purdue and the executives agree to pay $634.5 million in criminal and civil fines.

2010 – FDA approves an “abuse-deterrent” formulation of OxyContin, to help curb abuse. However, people still find ways to abuse it.

May 20, 2015 – The DEA announces that it has arrested 280 people, including 22 doctors and pharmacists, after a 15-month sting operation centered on health care providers who dispense large amounts of opioids. The sting, dubbed Operation Pilluted, is the largest prescription drug bust in the history of the DEA.

March 18, 2016 – The CDC publishes guidelines for prescribing opioids for patients with chronic pain. Recommendations include prescribing over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen and ibuprofen in lieu of opioids. Doctors are encouraged to promote exercise and behavioral treatments to help patients cope with pain.

March 29, 2017 – Trump signs an executive order calling for the establishment of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is selected as the chairman of the group, with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as an adviser.

July 31, 2017 – After a delay, the White House panel examining the nation’s opioid epidemic releases its interim report, asking Trump to declare a national public health emergency to combat the ongoing crisis

September 22, 2017 – The pharmacy chain CVS announces that it will implement new restrictions on filling prescriptions for opioids, dispensing a limited seven-day supply to patients who are new to pain therapy.

November 1, 2017 – The opioid commission releases its final report. Its 56 recommendations include a proposal to establish nationwide drug courts that would place opioid addicts in treatment facilities rather than prison.

February 9, 2018 – A budget agreement signed by Trump authorizes $6 billion for opioid programs, with $3 billion allocated for 2018 and $3 billion allocated for 2019.

February 27, 2018 – Sessions announces a new opioid initiative: The Prescription Interdiction & Litigation (PIL) Task Force. The mission of the task force is to support local jurisdictions that have filed lawsuits against prescription drugmakers and distributors.

March 19, 2018 – The Trump administration outlines an initiative to stop opioid abuse. The three areas of concentration are law enforcement and interdiction; prevention and education via an ad campaign; and job-seeking assistance for individuals fighting addiction.

April 9, 2018 – The US surgeon general issues an advisory recommending that Americans carry the opioid overdose-reversing drug, naloxone. A surgeon general advisory is a rarely used tool to convey an urgent message. The last advisory issued by the surgeon general, more than a decade ago, focused on drinking during pregnancy.

May 1, 2018 – The Journal of the American Medical Association publishes a study that finds synthetic opioids like fentanyl caused about 46% of opioid deaths in 2016. That’s a three-fold increase compared with 2010, when synthetic opioids were involved in about 14% of opioid overdose deaths. It’s the first time that synthetic opioids surpassed prescription opioids and heroin as the primary cause of overdose fatalities.

May 30, 2018 – The journal Medical Care publishes a study that estimates the cost of medical care and substance abuse treatment for opioid addiction was $78.5 billion in 2013.

June 7, 2018 – The White House announces a new multimillion dollar public awareness advertising campaign to combat opioid addiction. The first four ads of the campaign are all based on true stories illustrating the extreme lengths young adults have gone to obtain the powerful drugs.

December 12, 2018 – According to the National Center for Health Statistics, fentanyl is now the most commonly used drug involved in drug overdoses. The rate of drug overdoses involving the synthetic opioid skyrocketed by about 113% each year from 2013 through 2016.

January 14, 2019 – The National Safety Council finds that, for the first time on record, the odds of dying from an opioid overdose in the United States are now greater than those of dying in a vehicle crash.

March 26, 2019 – Purdue Pharma agrees to pay a $270 million settlement to settle a historic lawsuit brought by the Oklahoma attorney general. The settlement will be used to fund addiction research and help cities and counties with the opioid crisis.

July 17, 2019 – The CDC releases preliminary data showing a 5.1% decline in drug overdoses during 2018. If the preliminary number is accurate, it would mark the first annual drop in overdose deaths in more than two decades.

August 26, 2019 – Oklahoma wins its case against Johnson & Johnson in the first major opioid lawsuit trial to be held in the United States. Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman orders Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for its role in the state’s opioid crisis. The penalty is later reduced to $465 million, due to a mathematical error made when calculating the judgment. In November 2021, the Oklahoma Supreme Court reverses the decision.

September 15, 2019 – Purdue files for bankruptcy as part of a $10 billion agreement to settle opioid lawsuits. According to a statement from the chair of Purdue’s board of directors, the money will be allocated to communities nationwide struggling to address the crisis.

September 30, 2019 – The FDA and DEA announce that they sent warnings to four online networks, operating a total of 10 websites, which the agencies said are illegally marketing unapproved and misbranded versions of opioid medicines, including tramadol.

February 25, 2020 – Mallinckrodt, a large opioid manufacturer, reaches a settlement agreement in principle worth $1.6 billion. Mallinckrodt says the proposed deal will resolve all opioid-related claims against the company and its subsidiaries if it moves forward. Plaintiffs would receive payments over an eight-year period to cover the costs of opioid-addition treatments and other needs.

October 21, 2020 – The Justice Department announces that Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, has agreed to plead guilty to three federal criminal charges for its role in creating the nation’s opioid crisis. They agree to pay more than $8 billion and close down the company. The money will go to opioid treatment and abatement programs. The Justice Department also reached a separate $225 million civil settlement with the former owners of Purdue Pharma, the Sackler family. In November 2020, Purdue Pharma board chairman Steve Miller formally pleads guilty on behalf of the company.

March 15, 2021 – According to court documents, Purdue files a restructuring plan to dissolve itself and establish a new company dedicated to programs designed to combat the opioid crisis. As part of the proposed plan, the Sackler family agrees to pay an additional $4.2 billion over the next nine years to resolve various civil claims.

September 1, 2021 – In federal bankruptcy court, Judge Robert Drain rules that Purdue Pharma will be dissolved. The settlement agreement resolves all civil litigation against the Sackler family members, Purdue Pharma and other related parties and entities, and awards them broad legal protection against future civil litigation. The Sacklers will relinquish control of family foundations with over $175 million in assets to the trustees of a National Opioid Abatement Trust. On December 16, 2021, a federal judge overturns the settlement.

February 25, 2022 – Johnson & Johnson and the three largest US drug distributors – McKesson Corp, Cardinal Health Inc and AmerisourceBergen Corp – finalize a $26 billion nationwide opioid settlement.

March 3, 2022 – The Sackler families reaches a settlement with a group of states the first week of March, according to court filings. The settlement, ordered through court-ordered mediation that began in January, requires the Sacklers to pay out as much as $6 billion to states, individual claimants and opioid crisis abatement, if approved by a federal bankruptcy court judge.

November 2, 2022 – CVS and Walgreens agree to pay a combined $10 billion, over 10 and 15 years, to settle lawsuits brought by states and local governments alleging the retailers mishandled prescriptions of opioid painkillers.

November 15, 2022 – Walmart agrees to the framework of a $3.1 billion settlement, which resolves allegations from multiple states’ attorneys general that the company failed to regulate opioid prescriptions contributing to the nationwide opioid crisis.

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Covid-19 is no longer a public health emergency, but others remain | CNN



CNN
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The Covid-19 pandemic hit a major milestone this month as public health emergency declarations were ended by both the United States government and the World Health Organization. Emergency declarations for mpox also recently ended.

This doesn’t mean Covid-19 and mpox are no longer of concern, but it does mark the end of the availability of certain logistical capabilities to manage them.

Still, other critical health challenges were identified as health emergencies years before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and continue to be so: the opioid crisis in the US and the global spread of poliovirus.

Some public health concerns can be serious health threats without a formal emergency declaration, said Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It largely boils down to the logistics of government operations.

“When there’s an unusual situation that requires multiple parts of an agency or multiple parts of the government or multiple parts of society to come together and coordinate, collaborate and work efficiently, then an emergency declaration can be a useful tool,” said Frieden, president and CEO of Resolve to Save Lives, an organization focused on global epidemic prevention and cardiovascular health.

“Sometimes, an emergency is declared to make the point that it’s a big problem, to get people’s attention. Sometimes, an emergency is declared to get things done because that’s the only way you can bring certain governmental capacities to bear.”

According to WHO, a public health emergency of international concern is “an extraordinary event” that poses public health risk through the international spread of disease.

It creates an agreement between countries to abide by WHO’s recommendations for managing the emergency, often requiring a “coordinated international response.” Each country, in turn, declares its own public health emergency – declarations that carry legal weight. Countries use them to marshal resources and waive rules in order to ease a crisis.

In the US, the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services can declare a public health emergency for diseases or disorders that pose a threat, including “significant outbreaks” of an infectious disease, bioterrorist attacks or otherwise.

This triggers the availability of a set of resources and actions for the federal government, such as additional funds and data and reporting requirements.

Emergency declarations typically last up to 90 days, with formal renewal required as necessary every three months after that.

The opioid crisis was determined to be a public health emergency in October 2017, during the Trump administration, driven by the rising rates of opioid-related deaths and opioid use disorder.

The declaration has been renewed for more than five years, most recently at the end of March.

According to the CDC, the opioid epidemic started in 1999 with a rise in prescription opioid overdose deaths. Deaths started to increase precipitously as synthetic opioids – particularly fentanyl – started to take over in 2013.

In 2021, overdose deaths reached record levels in the US, and about three-quarters – more than 80,000 deaths – involved opioids.

Within the first year of the opioid emergency declaration, HHS used expanded authorities to field a survey about treatment for opioid use disorder among providers and to expedite research on the topic.

Public health emergencies are also declared to help with recovery after natural disasters, most recently for severe storms that hit Mississippi in March.

However, the Government Accountability Office considers both federal management of the public health emergency system and efforts to combat drug misuse to be “high-risk” areas that are vulnerable or in need of broad reform.

In a recent report, the federal watchdog group said that it has found “persistent deficiencies in HHS’s leadership role preparing for and responding to public health emergencies” and no demonstrated progress in federal agencies’ actions to address drug misuse.

WHO has considered poliovirus a public health emergency of international concern since 2014.

A committee formed to address the emergency reviewed the most recent data on cases and spread this month and voted unanimously that ongoing risks merited an extension of the emergency declaration, which the director-general formalized Friday.

The committee was “encouraged by reported progress” but says that risks remain high for factors including weak vaccination rates that could have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

WHO identified seven counties with potential risk for international spread. And the US is among a group of 37 countries with recently detected cases.

In July, a polio case identified in New York became the first in the US in nearly a decade. The identified case, along with several positive wastewater tests in nearby communities, met WHO criteria to consider the US a country with circulating poliovirus.

Experts warned that it could just be the “tip of the iceberg,” with hundreds of cases spreading silently.

Childhood vaccination rates in the US dropped during the Covid-19 pandemic. A CDC report found that about 93% of kindergarteners enrolled in the 2021-22 school year got the required vaccines, including measles, mumps and rubella (MMR); diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis (DTaP); and polio. Coverage fell for the second year in a row amid the pandemic, from about 94% the previous year and below the federal target of 95%.

While no longer under a formal emergency declaration, Covid-19 continues to be part of the “landscape of health threats,” Frieden said.

But the efficiency and coordination that the formal declaration helps facilitate should always be the goal.

“I think there are really important lessons from Covid, including the need to have a much more resilient public health system so that we can find problems quickly and implement effective solutions quickly,” Frieden said.

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Tracking the opioid crisis: Inside the DEA’s secret lab | CNN

Watch CNN Films’ “American Pain” at 9 p.m. ET Sunday, February 5.



CNN
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Sitting among the warehouses of Dulles, Virginia, is one of the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s forensic labs. It’s one of eight across the country where scientists analyze illegal drugs and try to stay ahead of what’s driving deadly overdoses.

Starting in the late 1990s with overprescribing of prescription narcotics, the opioid epidemic has continued to plague the United States for decades. What has changed is the type of drugs that have killed more than half a million people during the past 20 years.

CNN was granted rare access to the secret lab where the DEA tests seized illicit drugs to understand what’s coming next.

“The market is constantly changing, so we are trying to do everything we can from a science base to keep up with that,” Scott Oulton, deputy assistant administrator of the DEA’s Office of Forensic Sciences, told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Holding a white bag of fentanyl precursor powder – one of the chemicals used to make the opioid – Oulton explained that the illicitly made painkiller continues to be a dominant presence in the drugs officials are finding.

“This kilogram can be converted into fentanyl to make approximately 800 grams,” he said. “So it doesn’t take that much material, it’s fairly cheap, it’s inexpensive to obtain.”

Fentanyl is the deadliest drug in the United States, and it’s often found in combination with other illicit drugs, including cocaine and heroin. But increasingly, fentanyl is showing up in illicit pills disguised as common prescription drugs like oxycodone, hydrocodone, even Adderall.

Users buying drugs on the street that look like prescription pills may end up with a highly potent, potentially deadly drug they never intended to take.

“Over 99% of what we see are fake. They contain fentanyl,” Oulton says of the pills that the agency is seizing.

The 800 grams of fentanyl that Oulton held could be turned into 400,000 to 500,000 potentially lethal pills.

As more and more of these lethal pills circulate, the opioid epidemic is reaching more of the population.

Deena Loudon of Olney, Maryland, is among those living with its effects.

“I truly love sharing Matthew with the world,” Loudon says as she flips through pictures of her son.

One of her favorite memories is Matthew playing hockey – what Loudon calls his happy place.

Matthew Loudon's mom says he turned to drugs after struggling with anxiety.

But she also recalls his struggles with anxiety, which led him to turn to drugs. He started dabbling in them in the 10th grade. By the following year, his grades began to fall, and he couldn’t keep them high enough to stay in hockey.

“He was using Xanax to help self-medicate himself and I think to help get rid of some of that angst so he could live somewhat of a normal life,” Loudon said.

Matthew was always honest, almost to a fault, Loudon says. “He told me he tried everything. Like everything. Heroin, meth, crack, you name it, cocaine, whatever – until I guess he found what made him feel the best, and it was Xanax.”

And as much as a mother can worry, Loudon says, Matthew always tried to reassure her. “I know what I’m doing,” he would tell her.

She had heard about fentanyl showing up in pills in their area.

“But you don’t ever think it’s going to happen to you,” Loudon said.

She said they even had a conversation about fentanyl the day before he died. “I was sort of naive, wanting to stick my head in the sand and thinking ‘I bet he does know what he’s doing.’ ”

On November 3, 2020, she found 21-year-old Matthew on the floor of their basement.

Matthew’s autopsy report lists his cause of death as fentanyl and despropionyl fentanyl intoxication.

“I don’t say he overdosed. I say he died from fentanyl poisoning. … Truthfully, like, at the end of the day, to me, he was murdered, right? Because he asked for one thing. They gave him something different. And it took his life.”

For a parent, she said, the hardest thing is burying their child. It’s a pain she speaks out about in hopes of keeping other families safe.

“It’s Russian roulette,” she warns them. “You never know what you’re gonna get.”

The number of pills the DEA has seized skyrocketed in just three years, from 2.2 million in 2019 to 50.6 million in 2022.

The sheer volume of pills has been one of the biggest challenges for the DEA’s lab, Oulton says. As the fentanyl threat continues to grow, the Virginia facility is expanding to accommodate the analysis needed.

The lab can test for something as simple as the presence of fentanyl, but something called the purity of the pill also offers important insight. This means how much fentanyl is actually in one of these illicit pills.

“Lately, we’ve been seeing a purity increase over the last year, where we used to say roughly four out of the 10 seizures that we were receiving would contain a lethal dose of greater than 2 milligrams. As of October last year, we started reporting that we’ve seen an uptick. Now we’re saying that six out of 10 of the seizures that we’re receiving contain over 2 milligrams,” Oulton said.

He says they’re finding an average of 2.3 milligrams of fentanyl in each pill.

Two milligrams may be the cutoff for what is considered lethal, but Oulton says that doesn’t necessarily mean a pill with 1.99 milligrams of fentanyl can’t be deadly.

“One pill can kill” is his warning.

“The message I would like to send out is, don’t take it,” he said. “Don’t take the chance. It’s not worth your life.”

Oulton says he and his team are constantly finding new and different drugs and substances in pills – things they’ve never seen before.

One machine in the lab is almost the equivalent of an MRI in a medical office, showing the structure and detail of a pill.

“We will do what we call structural elucidation to determine that this is a different version of a fentanyl that’s got a new compound and molecule that’s been added to it,” Oulton said.

They’ve seen “hundreds and hundreds of unique combinations,” he said.

“We’ll see one that contains fentanyl, one with fentanyl and xylazine, one with fentanyl and caffeine, one with fentanyl and acetaminophen, and you don’t know what you’re getting.”

Xylazine, a veterinary tranquilizer, poses a unique problem. It’s not an opioid, so even when it’s mixed with fentanyl, drugs designed to reverse an opioid overdose may not work.

Narcan or naloxone, one of the more common overdose-reversing drugs, has become increasingly necessary as the prevalence and potency of illicit drugs increases. About 1.2 million doses of naloxone were dispensed by retail pharmacies in 2021, according to data published by the American Medical Association – nearly nine times more than were dispensed five years earlier.

Oulton wants to be clear: The problem Isn’t with pills prescribed by your doctor and dispensed by a pharmacy – it’s the pills on the illicit market.

Those, Matthew’s mother warns, are easy to get.

“The first pills [Matthew] got was in high school. And it was just flipping out, floating around, and it was easy for him to get his hands on,” she said.

Loudon’s message for parents now: Keep your eyes open.

“Just be mindful of what your children are doing. You just just have to keep your eyes open. And even sometimes, when you keep your eyes open, you can miss some of the warning signs, but I think a parent knows their child best, so just keep talking.”

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