Health Lab Addressing the Fentanyl Threat to Public Health

The New England Journal of Medicine / February 16, 2017
By Richard G. Frank and Harold A. Pollack

Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, poses an increasing public health threat. Low production costs encourage suppliers to "cut" heroin with the drug, particularly white powder heroin sold in the eastern United States. 

Fentanyl also appears as a prevalent active ingredient in counterfeit OxyContin (oxycodone) tablets. The result is that fentanyl plays a major role in rising mortality due to heroin or opioid overdose. It poses a serious overdose risk be cause it can rapidly suppress respiration and cause death more quickly than do other opioids.

From 2012 through 2014, the number of reported deaths involving fentanyl more than doubled, from 2628 to 5544. We estimate that 41% of the roughly 7100 heroin-related deaths during this period involved fentanyl. The graph illustrates this calculation, placing heroin and fentanyl at the center of continued growth in opioid-related mortality.

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16 February 2017