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Madison Czopek
By Madison Czopek December 31, 2019

Schmitt rates Mostly True on claim about opioid deaths

As cases of opioid use disorder continue to wreak havoc across the U.S., many states have taken steps to address the issue. Missouri is one of more than 30 states that brought a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, alleging the companies misrepresented the dangerous and addictive nature of the drugs.

Speaking at a roundtable discussion about the opioid epidemic Nov. 25, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who inherited Missouri’s lawsuit when he took office, said, "You have literally 140 people dying every day of opioid-related overdoses. That’s like a passenger plane going down every day of every week of every month of every year of every decade."

Stating that 140 deaths per day are caused by opioid-related overdoses emphasizes the high stakes of the opioid crisis, so we wanted to see if Schmitt’s number was correct.

Here’s what we found: He’s off by about 10.

Preliminary data for last year shows fewer deaths.

The numbers

When asked about where Schmitt found the statistic, Chris Nuelle, the attorney general’s press secretary, said that opioid-related research can fluctuate, so it can be hard to get exact numbers. He also noted that Schmitt has often attributed 130 deaths per day to opioids, though Nuelle believes the 140 number is still accurate.

Nuelle pointed to a National Institute on Drug Abuse article that attributed more than 130 deaths per day and provided the link to a U.S. News & World Report story that analyzed opioid data, but did not indicate the number of deaths due to opioid overdoses each day at all.

The most reliable and most recent data available on drug and opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC’s most recent data was released in 2018 and analyzes 2017 drug and opioid overdose deaths.

In 2017, there were 70,237 drug overdose deaths in the United States. Of those deaths, 47,600 — or 67.8% of all drug overdose deaths — involved some type of opioids whether natural, synthetic or semisynthetic.

When you break these statistics down into deaths per day, there were approximately 192 drug overdose deaths each day on average in 2017. Of those 192 deaths, about 130 each day involved an opioid. This statistic does not match up exactly with Schmitt’s claim that there are 140 opioid-related deaths daily in the U.S.

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Jasmine Reed, a public affairs specialist at the CDC, said in an email that the 130 daily deaths from opioid overdoses is an average calculated by dividing the total number of opioid overdoses in the year by the number of days in a year. She said this means the number is not an absolute figure, but that it is more accurate to say there are 130 opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. each day than it is to say there are 140.

The CDC estimates that between 1999 and 2017, more than 702,000 people have died from a drug overdose, and about 399,000 of those deaths were due to opioid overdoses. Overall, the number of opioid overdose deaths each day and drug overdose deaths each day have both been steadily increasing within that time period.

If the number of opioid overdose deaths continued growing steadily, as it has in past years, the number of deaths each day in 2019 might, in fact, be 140 or even exceed 140. However, this is not yet known because the final counts of overdose deaths for 2018 and 2019 have not been released.

The CDC has released provisional data for 2018 that indicates the number of drug overdose deaths dropped from 70,237 in 2017 to 68,110 in 2018. The CDC warns that this number is likely "underreported due to incomplete data," but the overall drop suggests that opioid-related overdoses also decreased in 2018. This could mean the number of opioid overdose deaths is actually less than 130 per day.

Reasons for overdoses

Aaron Williams, senior director for training and technical assistance for substance abuse at the National Council For Behavioral Health, explained there are a number of reasons why opioid overdose deaths constitute such a large portion of drug overdose deaths.

"Over the last decade and a half, there has been a significant increase in the prescription of and use of opioid-based medications for pain, in particular," Williams said. He said many people developed substance use problems due to this uptick, which increased overdose deaths because high doses of opioids can cause respiratory depression that leads to death.

Williams also said in recent years illegal opioids have become easier to get, with heroin getting "cheaper and purer" as one example. He said potent synthetic opioids (tramadol, fentanyl, etc.) have moved into the pipeline as well.

Our ruling

"You have literally 140 people dying every day of opioid-related overdoses," Attorney General Eric Schmitt said at a public discussion about the opioid epidemic.

The most recent data available from 2017 indicates that it’s actually about 130 people who die every day from overdoses involving opioids. Schmitt was off by only about 10 deaths.

For this reason, we rate this claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

Interview with Aaron Williams, senior director for training and technical assistance for substance abuse at the National Council For Behavioral Health, on Dec. 11, 2019

Email exchange with Jasmine Reed, public affairs specialist at the CDC, on Dec. 9, 2019

Email exchange with Chris Nuelle, attorney general Eric Schmitt’s press secretary, on Dec. 9, 2019

CDC, Drug Overdose Deaths, accessed Dec. 11, 2019

CDC, Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts, accessed Dec. 12, 2019

National Institute on Drug Abuse, Opioid Overdose Crisis, revised Jan. 2019

U.S. News and World Report, Analysis: The Opioid Crisis Is Here for Years, Jan. 28, 2019

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, HHS Acting Secretary Declares Public Health Emergency to Address National Opioid Crisis, Oct. 26, 2017

World Health Organization, Information sheet on opioid abuse, Aug. 2018

CDC, Synthetic Opioid Overdose, accessed Dec. 11, 2019

CDC, Overview of the Drug Overdose Epidemic: Behind the Numbers, accessed Dec. 11, 2019

CDC, Opioid Overdose: Understanding the Epidemic, accessed Dec. 11, 2019

CDC, Opioid Overdose, accessed Dec. 11, 2019

National Center for Health Statistics, Drug Overdose Deaths in the United States, 1999–2017 NCHS Data Brief, Nov. 2018

National Center for Health Statistics, Data Brief 329, Nov. 2018

Mental Health First Aid, 5 Surprising Facts About Opioid Use, March 20, 2019

KTVO, Missouri Attorney General expands opioid lawsuit, June 13, 2019

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Schmitt rates Mostly True on claim about opioid deaths

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