Piercing Overdose Disparities

Overdose deaths among Black individuals have increased across the U.S., surpassing White deaths in 2020 for the first time in decades.

graphs showing drug-related overdose mortality per 100,000 by race/ethnicity and type of drugs involved

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Overdose deaths continue to surge in the U.S. There was a 30% increase in the national overdose death rate during the first year of the pandemic. In 2022, overdose continued to claim the lives of 110,000 people. Massachusetts alone saw over 2,300 fatalities, the highest number on record. As the nation plunges further into a drug crisis, evident racial disparities in overdose continue to widen.

Leading up to the 2020 overdose spike, Joseph Friedman and his colleagues at the Medical Scientist Training Program at UCLA analyzed data among the racial makeup of drug-related overdose deaths from the National Vital Statistics System reports from 1999 to 2019.

The topmost graph above shows that the overdose death rate among the White population was already high and continued rising from 2010 to 2019, but death rates accelerated faster among the Black population, with death rates tripling in that time. In 2010, the overdose death rate of Black people was half that of White people in 2010, but was nearly equal by 2019.

Age played an important role in the racial breakdown of overdose deaths. Black men aged 55-59 had double the rate per 100,000 of their White counterparts, the largest recorded disparity in every age group observed. The spread of overdose deaths among Black individuals also widened across the U.S., surpassing White deaths in 2020 for the first time in decades. Shifts in deaths were driven by the rise of available fentanyl and the increased frequency of drug deaths that combined opioids with stimulants, particularly cocaine.

The increased death rate among Black and American Indian/Alaskan Native communities must be considered in the context of criminal laws that discriminate based on race. Excessive police enforcement, and barriers in access to care all contribute to challenges in providing proper and meaningful care to individuals from underrepresented minorities.

Databyte via Joseph Friedman, Leo Beletsky, Ayana Jordan. Surging Racial Disparities in the U.S. Overdose Crisis. American Journal of Psychiatry, 2022.