The drug-overdose epidemic, sometimes viewed as a largely white rural problem, made striking inroads among black Americans last year, particularly in urban counties where fentanyl has become widespread, reports the New York Times.
The first numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to break down 2016 mortality along geographic and racial lines show that the drug death rate is rising most steeply among blacks, with those between 45 and 64 among the hardest hit. Drug deaths among blacks in urban counties rose 41 percent in 2016, far outpacing any other racial or ethnic group.
The death rate among whites rose 19 percent. Driven by the surge in drug deaths, U.S. life expectancy dropped for the second year in a row last year, the first consecutive decline in national life expectancy since 1963. Drug overdoses have surpassed heart disease as the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 55.
Dr. Andrew Kolodny of Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management said it appeared that many of the African Americans who died were older men who had become addicted to heroin during a previous epidemic in the 1970s.
“Despite beating the odds for the past 40 to 50 years,” he said, “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.” Fentanyl-laced cocaine may be playing a role. A study in Annals of Internal Medicine found that cocaine-related overdose deaths were nearly as common among black men between 2012 and 2015 as deaths due to prescription opioids in white men over the same period.
Fentanyl has caused a huge spike in overdose deaths in New York in the last year. It played a role in about 16 percent of overdose deaths in 2015 and 44 percent in 2016, compared with 3 percent in prior years.