Geographic Variation in Opioid and Heroin Involved Drug Poisoning Mortality Rates

  • Christopher J. Ruhm
    Address correspondence to: Christopher J. Ruhm, PhD, Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, University of Virginia, 235 McCormick Road, P.O. Box 400893, Charlottesville VA 22904-4893
    Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia
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      An important barrier to formulating effective policies to address the rapid rise in U.S. fatal overdoses is that the specific drugs involved are frequently not identified on death certificates. This analysis supplies improved estimates of state opioid and heroin involved drug fatality rates in 2014, and changes from 2008 to 2014.


      Reported mortality rates were calculated directly from death certificates and compared to corrected rates that imputed drug involvement when no drug was specified. The analysis took place during 2016–2017.


      Nationally, corrected opioid and heroin involved mortality rates were 24% and 22% greater than reported rates. The differences varied across states, with particularly large effects in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Louisiana. Growth in corrected opioid mortality rates, from 2008 to 2014, were virtually the same as reported increases (2.5 deaths per 100,000 people) whereas changes in corrected heroin death rates exceeded reported increases (2.7 vs 2.3 per 100,000). Without corrections, opioid mortality rate changes were considerably understated in Pennsylvania, Indiana, New Jersey, and Arizona, but dramatically overestimated in South Carolina, New Mexico, Ohio, Connecticut, Florida, and Kentucky. Increases in heroin death rates were understated in most states, and by large amounts in Pennsylvania, Indiana, New Jersey, Louisiana, and Alabama.


      The correction procedures developed here supply a more accurate understanding of geographic differences in drug poisonings and supply important information to policymakers attempting to reduce or slow the increase in fatal drug overdoses.
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