The largely white faces of the deadly opioid epidemic that has claimed more than 350,000 American lives since 1999 are rapidly changing as the drug crisis makes major inroads into the big East Coast cities, according to a recent study by Stanford University researchers.
Researchers with Harvard University and the University of Toronto also contributed to the report.
The study, published in the journal JAMA on Friday, states that “although opioid-related mortality has been stereotyped as a rural, low-income phenomenon concentrated among Appalachian or midwestern states, it has spread rapidly — particularly among the eastern states.”
The result is “a wider range of populations being affected, with the spread of the epidemic from rural to urban areas and considerable increases in opioid-related mortality observed in the black population,” study authors wrote.
Researchers found that the highest rates of opioid-related deaths occurred in eight states that including Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland. The mortality rate from opioids has surged the fasted in the District of Columbia, where nearly half the residents are Black, tripling every year since 2013. Meanwhile, in Florida and Pennsylvania, deaths from opioids have doubled every two years.
So what’s driving the spread?
“Heroin,” lead study author Mathew Kiang told NBC News.
More specifically, fentanyl-laced heroin is to blame, which is about 25 to 50 times more powerful than straight heroin. The deadly synthetic has increasingly made its way into other illicit drugs, including cocaine and methamphetamine, and oftentimes drug sellers are unaware they’re peddling fentanyl-laced dope.
“People aren’t aware their drugs are laced and more potent than they expected, putting them at higher risk of an overdose,” Kiang, a research fellow at the Center for Population Health Sciences at the Stanford University School of Medicine, said in a press release.
Using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and National Center for Health Statistics, Kiang and his team of researchers found trends that suggest the opioid crisis evolved as three distinct waves, the first of which was associated with the heavy marketing of prescription painkillers from the 1990s to about 2010. This had little effect on African-Americans, however, because there were “much lower opioid prescription rates in the black population than in the white population,” researchers wrote.
The second wave of opioid-related deaths, from 2010 until recently, has been linked to an increase in fatal heroin overdoses, while the manufacture of synthetic opioids like fentanyl and tramadol are to blame for the third and current wave of the deadly epidemic.
“The worry is fentanyl making its way into other drugs that unsuspecting people use like cocaine,” Kiang told NBC News. “That’s probably the one people are most concerned about, and it has real implications for places like California” where cocaine is the popular drug of choice.
Although the Black community was once unaffected by the growing opioid crisis that ravaged parts of the Rust Belt and Midwest, a previous study conducted by Kiang and his colleagues found that, more recently, the “rates of heroin use and prescription opioid misuse in blacks and whites have begun to converge.”
The latest report, published on Friday, found that opioid-related deaths nationwide jumped fourfold in just the past 20 years. The median death age for men was 39.8, while for women it was 43.5, the study found.
“Treating opioid use disorder should be our top priority to curb the problem,” Kiang said in a statement.
“Similarly, we have the ability to counteract the effects of an overdose. These lifesaving drugs should be easily accessible and widely available.”