Reports prove misleading on teen overdose deaths

Aug 18 2017

Reports prove misleading on teen overdose deaths

More teens are dying from drug-related overdoses. Opioids are to blame, and the statistics prove it.

But that’s not the whole story.

On August 16th, the Centers for Disease Control released a report showing a spike in teen overdose deaths from 2014-2015. In the days following, many media outlets jumped on the report as yet another sign that the opioid epidemic is wreaking havoc on our country. Talk to treatment providers and you’ll likely hear the same thing. The crisis is undeniable.

But for this particular study, the reporting has largely “buried the lead” and marginalized a key component: that teen overdose deaths actually declined from 2007 to 2014, and the latest “spike” is only a measure of 2014-2015. One year does not make a trend.

With headlines like “There’s Been a Shocking Surge in Overdose Deaths“ and “These Opioids Are Killing an Increasing Number of American Teens,“ you’d think deaths had skyrocketed to never-before-seen levels. That is simply not the case.

According to the CDC, 772 teens aged 15-19 died from a drug overdose in 2015. That averages out to 3.7 overdose deaths per 100,000 adolescents, up from 3.1 deaths per 100,000 in 2014. Both years showed a decrease from 2007 when overdoses peaked at 4.2 deaths per 100,000. The 2015 rate is still more than double what it was in 1999 when the rate was 1.6 per 100,000.

The point is that over the past two decades, overdose rates increased, but also remained variable, and it’s unwise to try to derive too many conclusions from one snapshot.

This is not to trivialize the pain and suffering felt by so many families across the country left to grieve for their young children because of a drug overdose. Their loss is shared by all of us and it is up to us to provide education and prevention programming to try to make sure no other family has to endure such unimaginable hardship.

Again, the simple fact is that teen overdose deaths are on the rise, and opioids are playing a significant factor. The study isn’t wrong. But to use this study to push a false narrative and ignore the larger trend is simply irresponsible. Things are not as good as they were in 1999, but they’re not as bad as 2007. Statistics should be considered in such context.

The significance of how opioids are contributing to these numbers should also be inspected more closely. In the majority of drug-related deaths, it is not a single substance that caused the overdose, but rather a mixture of several. The CDC report only points to deaths “involving” opioids, but does not specify if they were the sole cause. The number of overdose deaths involving opioids has increased significantly from 1999, however, but they are still not at their peak.

Teens are dying and drugs are the cause. But we must look at the overall picture and see that our efforts over the last decade have been productive, if not perfect. It’s not time to throw out the entire playbook and start fresh, but rather adapt policies and programs to the current situation to prevent as many deaths as possible.