Importance: Opioid prescribing and overdose are leading public health problems in North America, yet the precise public health burden has not been quantified.
Objective: To examine the burden of opioid-related mortality across the United States over time.
Design, setting, and participants: This study used a serial cross-sectional design in which cross sections were examined at different time points to investigate deaths from opioid-related causes in the United States between January 1, 2001, and December 31, 2016.
Main outcomes and measures: Opioid-related deaths, defined as those in which a prescription or illicit opioid contributed substantially to an individual's cause of death as determined by death certificates. We compared the percentage of deaths attributable to opioids and the associated person-years of life lost by age group.
Results: Between 2001 and 2016, the number of opioid-related deaths in the United States increased by 345%, from 9489 to 42 245 deaths (33.3 to 130.7 deaths per million population). By 2016, men accounted for 67.5% of all opioid-related deaths, and the median (interquartile range) age at death was 40 (30-52) years. The percentage of deaths attributable to opioids increased in a similar fashion. In 2001, 0.4% of deaths (1 in 255) were opioid related, rising to 1.5% of deaths (1 in 65) by 2016, an increase of 292%. This burden was highest among adults aged 24 to 35 years. In this age group, 20.0% of deaths were attributable to opioids in 2016. Among those aged 15 to 24 years, 12.4% of deaths were attributable to opioids in 2016. Overall, opioid-related deaths resulted in 1 681 359 years of life lost (5.2 per 1000 population) in the United States in 2016, most of which (1 125 711 years of life lost) were among men. Adults aged 25 to 34 years had 12.9 years of life lost per 1000 population, and those aged 35 to 44 years had 9.9 years of life lost per 1000 population.
Conclusions and relevance: Premature death from opioid-related causes imposes an enormous public health burden across the United States. The recent increase in deaths attributable to opioids among those aged 15 to 34 years highlights a need for targeted programs and policies that focus on improved addiction care and harm reduction measures in this high-risk population.