On What Dark Day Did the U.S. Reach 100,000 Annual Overdose Deaths?

Family funeral

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintains a monthly record of America’s overdose losses that is as close as possible to real-time numbers. Every month, they update a chart to tell us whether our addiction and overdose situation is getting better or worse.

Using their numbers, we see that starting in December 2017, we actually did start experiencing a little improvement. After climbing every month for years, the numbers began trending gently down. News outlets across the country began crowing about this improvement. Though the decline was very slight, it continued through June 2019. The U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services celebrated this decline in a tweet: “Lives are being saved, and we’re beginning to win the fight against this crisis,” said Alex Azar.

Then the good news ended.

A New and Deadly Era

Let’s look at the CDC reports between 2017 and 2021 and see what happened.

When reporting on overdose deaths, the CDC presents two sets of numbers: reported deaths and predicted deaths. The number of predicted deaths reflects what the CDC estimates the total numbers will be when all the reports are collected. It takes time for autopsies and toxicology reports to be completed and sent to the CDC. Reported deaths is the total reached when all these reports are actually in the CDC’s hands. This statistic is arrived at significantly later than predicted deaths.

CDC overdose deaths
Statistics courtesy of the CDC.

Using the estimated totals, this is what the numbers have looked like through the 2017-2018 decreases and then the increases that started in March 2019.

In this grid, from left to right, you have the month of the report, the total number of drug overdose deaths in the prior twelve months and then the change, up or down. Decreases show up in red.

So for the twelve-month period ending in March 2019, there were 68,622 drug overdose deaths. This number was 106 deaths higher than the number of lives lost in the twelve-month period ending February 2019.

You see that some months, the increases or decreases are small. For example, there were 23 fewer deaths in the twelve months ending in October 2018 compared to the losses in the twelve months ending in September 2018. And two more deaths in the twelve months ending in June 2019 compared to May 2019.

You can also see that, using these numbers, it looks like we probably arrived at this heartbreaking milestone of 100,000 lives lost in the prior twelve months on or about April 16, 2021.

To calculate this date, I averaged out the increases from February 2020 through January 2021. There was an average of 1873 more deaths, month to month. By adding this number to the months following January 2021, I could estimate the date that we probably reached that appalling milestone.

What Good is it to Calculate These Numbers?

The only good is to bring attention to this unabated catastrophe. Understandably, there are many social, national and international concerns that hold our attention. But we should never forget that our sons, daughters, neighbors and community members are losing their lives every day.

In the next several months, we’ll know for sure when we passed this crossroad. It will be close to the end of the year before we see April’s figures on the CDC chart.

A Look Back at Our History

Is it possible we have become numb to such high numbers? Possibly so. Or do we just obliterate our memories of how low overdose deaths were just a generation or so ago? That’s also possible.

When overdose reports are written, they very commonly look at a span of time from about 1999 to 2019 so they are almost always looking at a span of about 20 years. What if we go back even further than that? Let’s go all the way to 1968.

When we do this, we see our real situation. For many years, the number of losses hovered between 5,000 and 8,000 as you can see here. This chart ends in 2018. In the last bar on this chart, you can see that slight decline we were talking about earlier. As of May 2020, we’ve soared off the top of this chart entirely.

Drug Overdose Deaths in US graph
Drug Overdose Deaths in US.
(Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Is Anything Being Done About This Catastrophe?

There are many, many people across the nation that are doing their best to hold individuals and companies accountable for their parts in creating this situation.

According to a Reuters report, Purdue Pharma is currently in bankruptcy court. This is the company that’s widely acknowledged as having launched the aggressive marketing tactics that addicted millions to their opioid painkiller OxyContin. The Sackler family that owns Purdue Pharma has lost their previously sterling reputation as philanthropists. They are currently negotiating with the U.S. Government to yield billions of dollars from their personal bank accounts. However, Forbes still listed the Sackers on the country’s richest families in 2020.

Purdue Pharma and the Sackler have been named in thousands of lawsuits from states, cities, tribes, unions, hospitals and other groups. These entities seek to recoup their costs resulting from the addiction of millions of people. The billions that will be received in settlements with this company and the Sacklers will generally be used to look for new solutions to addiction, fund drug prevention services and establish treatment centers for those who are addicted.

That’s what normally happens with these multi-million dollar settlements as can be seen in this report from a trial in Oklahoma. Johnson & Johnson was ordered to pay the State of Oklahoma $465 million to help abate the addiction problems the company contributed to through their distribution of opioid painkillers in the state.

Pharmaceutical distribution companies are also on the hook for the problems caused by excessive and negligent shipment of millions of units of opioid painkillers to small communities. Cardinal Health, Inc., for example, agreed to pay Maryland, Florida and New York $44 million to compensate the states for their negligence.

Individuals like Maura Healy, the Attorney General of Massachusetts, have been heroic in their efforts to rectify these wrongs. She and others like her have revealed the criminal activities of pharmaceutical companies that launched this epidemic of overdoses.

What Else Can Be Done?

Getting son into rehab

In every community and every family, there must be:

  • Vigilance to prevent drug use, especially among our young;
  • Earnest efforts in homes and schools to educate the young on the real dangers of drug use;
  • Care and recovery support for those who are addicted;
  • Support for law enforcement who rid our cities of drugs and jail drug traffickers;
  • Support also for first responders of all types who are the only hope of many who overdose.

Parents, teachers, counselors, civic groups, churches, clubs—all can and should work together to keep drugs out of our homes, schools and towns.

Yes, there are many issues requiring our attention in 2021. Still, we must not lose sight of the need to reduce drug use, addiction and the number of lives lost to addiction. If we are ever to turn these numbers around again and send them permanently into lower ranges, we must not lose sight of this goal, and we must work together.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP, LCDC


Karen Hadley

For more than a decade, Karen has been researching and writing about drug trafficking, drug abuse, addiction and recovery. She has also studied and written about policy issues related to drug treatment.