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Federal health officials have documented a rise in overdose deaths from opioids -- heroin, as well as prescription painkillers such as OxyContin that can lead to heroin abuse.
The latest figures, reported in July 2014, show there were 4,397 heroin deaths across the country in 2011, up 44 percent from 2010.
Meanwhile, prescription opioid deaths, following a more than decade-long rise, claimed many more lives -- 16,917, up 2 percent.
But, comparatively speaking, just how serious is the opioid problem?
In an Aug. 15, 2014 interview on Wisconsin Public Television, Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel, the Republican candidate for state attorney general, was asked what he considered the most important facing the winner of the Nov. 4, 2014 election.
Schimel -- who faces Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ, a Democrat -- gave this response:
"Well, right now, the biggest public safety issue we face is the heroin and prescription opioid problem. It is the number one cause of accidental or preventable death in Wisconsin. It surpassed traffic crashes quite a few years ago already."
Is it true that overdoses from heroin or prescription opioids not only outnumber traffic fatalities, but are the top cause of accidental deaths in Wisconsin?
The latest figures from the U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that nationally, there were 41,340 fatal drug overdoses of all types in 2011, making it the leading cause of injury death in the country.
But what about in Wisconsin? When we asked Schimel’s campaign about his claim, Schimel replied in an email that he had misspoken.
He told us he meant to say that the number of all drug overdose deaths in Wisconsin -- not just heroin and prescription opioid deaths -- exceed the number of motor vehicle deaths and are the top cause of accidental deaths.
We checked the latest report from the state Department of Health Services, which said there were 2,789 accidental deaths in 2012.
The leading cause was 1,091 falls (which also was the leading cause in 2011, according to the department).
There were 615 motor vehicle deaths.
The same number of deaths -- 615-- was caused by "accidental poisoning and exposure to noxious substances."
But those 615 included deaths caused by a variety of drugs, as well as other substances such as alcohol.
Separately, we obtained figures from the health department showing there were 511 opioid deaths in Wisconsin in 2012.
That included 187 heroin deaths, up from 27 in 2002. And there were 324 deaths caused either by prescription opioids or a mix of prescription opioids and heroin, up from 144 in 2002.
Schimel said heroin and prescription opioidss are "the number one cause of accidental or preventable death in Wisconsin."
Schimel acknowledged to us that he misspoke and in fact opioid deaths are down the list. The latest figures, for 2012, show falls was the leading causes of accidental death in Wisconsin. Tied for second were motor vehicle deaths and drug overdose of all types -- including 511 deaths from heroin or prescription opioids.
We rate the statement False.
Wisconsin Public Television, "Here and Now" interview of Brad Schimel, Aug. 15, 2014
Email interview, Brad Schimel campaign spokesman Johnny Koremenos, Aug. 19, 2014
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Drug poisoning deaths in the United States, 1980-2008," December 2011
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Deaths: Leading causes for 2010," Dec. 20, 2013
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Prescription drug overdose in the United States: Fact sheet," July 3, 2014
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Prescription painkiller overdoses in the U.S.," November 2011
National Safety Council, "Injury Facts 2014" news release, March 25, 2014
National Safety Council, media relations coordinator Maureen Vogel, Aug. 20, 2014
Wisconsin Department of Health Services, "Wisconsin Deaths, 2012," April 2014
Wisconsin Department of Health Services, "Wisconsin epidemiological profile on alcohol and other drug use, 2012," September 2012
Wisconsin State Council on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse, "Wisconsin’s Heroin Epidemic: Strategies and Solutions," July 2014
Email interview, Wisconsin Department of Health Services spokeswoman Stephanie Smiley, Aug. 21, 2014
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