Drug overdose deaths in 2016 most likely exceeded 59,000, the largest annual jump ever recorded in the United States, according to preliminary data compiled by The New York Times.
The death count is the latest consequence of an escalating public health crisis: opioid addiction, now made more deadly by an influx of illicitly manufactured fentanyl and similar drugs. Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50.
Although the data is preliminary, the Times's best estimate is that deaths rose 19 percent over the 52,404 recorded in 2015. And all evidence suggests the problem has continued to worsen in 2017.
Because drug deaths take a long time to certify, the Centers for DiseaseControl and Prevention will not be able to calculate final numbers until December. The Times compiled estimates for 2016 from hundreds of state health departments and county coroners and medical examiners. Together they represent data from states and counties that accounted for 76 percent of overdose deaths in 2015. They are a first look at the extent of the drug overdose epidemic last year, a detailed accounting of a modern plague.
The initial data points to large increases in drug overdose deaths in states along the East Coast, particularly Maryland, Florida, Pennsylvania and Maine. In Ohio, which filed a lawsuit last week accusing five drug companies of abetting the opioid epidemic, we estimate overdose deaths increased by more than 25 percent in 2016.
"Heroin is the devil's drug, man. It is," Cliff Parker said, sitting on a bench in Grace Park in Akron. Mr. Parker, 24, graduated from high school not too far from here, in nearby Copley, where he was a multisport athlete. In his senior year, he was a varsity wrestler and earned a scholarship to the University of Akron. Like his friends and teammates, he started using prescription painkillers at parties. It was fun, he said. By the time it stopped being fun, it was too late. Pills soon turned to heroin, and his life began slipping away from him.